Cambridge, MD. -- The House Republican leadership, meeting here at the party's winter retreat, kept its new immigration reform "principles" as secret as nuclear codes. Old immigration hands on the Hill, who might have been expected to play a big part in producing the document, were barely consulted. When Speaker John Boehner's office wanted a knowledgeable Hill staffer to take a look at the work in progress, the person was invited into a room to examine a draft -- no copying or note-taking allowed. And the paper remained a mystery to almost all GOP lawmakers until Boehner unveiled it at a members-only meeting at the freezing Hyatt resort on Maryland's Eastern Shore late Thursday afternoon.
Boehner had his reasons. The principles were going to be the first step in what could well be an ugly and divisive immigration fight inside the House GOP. So why let the opponents get a head start?
Now that the principles -- all 804 words of them -- have been released, it's clear those opponents will have a lot to work with. What the GOP calls its "Standards for Immigration Reform" is almost all boilerplate, mostly indistinguishable from the Senate Gang of Eight "framework" that Boehner and other House Republicans rejected.
There's the standard talk about how the U.S. immigration system is "broken." There are calls for more border enforcement. More interior enforcement, like employment verification and an entry-exit visa system. Provisions for guest workers. Special consideration of young immigrants. It's all been seen before.
And then there are by-now familiar guidelines for the handling of the 11 or 12 million immigrants in the country illegally. "These persons could live legally and without fear in the U.S.," the principles say, "but only if they were willing to admit their culpability, pass rigorous background checks, pay significant fines and back taxes, develop proficiency in English and American civics, and be able to support themselves and their families (without access to public benefits)."
That, too, is all standard issue. But then, in the very last sentence of the principles, comes the key to the whole thing: "None of this can happen before specific enforcement triggers have been implemented to fulfill our promise to the American people that from here on, our immigration laws will indeed be enforced."
It is not an exaggeration to say that the future of immigration reform in Congress depends on whether Republican leaders mean what they say in that single sentence.
If they do, and the GOP insists on actual border security measures being in place -- not just passed, not just contemplated, but actually in place -- before illegal immigrants are allowed to register for legal status, then there will likely be significant Republican support for such a bill. (It might well be a deal-killer for most Democrats, but that is another story.)
If, on the other hand, GOP lawmakers wiggle around the clear meaning of the principles' last sentence to allow legalization to begin before security measures have been implemented, then the party will be back to the same divisions and animosities that have plagued Republicans since the terrible fights over immigration reform in 2006 and 2007.
Right now, it's impossible to say which way GOP leaders will go. But there are signs that the wiggling is already underway.
In an interview with MSNBC on Wednesday, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., a leading advocate of reform, described a system in which illegal immigrants could come forward and receive probationary status while -- not after -- border security work is being done. "...You can be on probation, and you have to satisfy the terms of your probation while the border's getting secured," Ryan said.
That -- legalization first, followed by completed security -- is an entirely different scenario from the one described in the principles. If Republican leaders insist on legalization before security measures are implemented, they'll likely lose many, many rank-and-file conservative lawmakers.
Of course, the principles give Republicans some room to maneuver. Just what will those "specific enforcement triggers" be? They certainly won't be a complete security overhaul of the Mexican border. More likely, Republicans will ultimately stipulate that the Border Patrol have complete "situational awareness" -- that is, surveillance capability -- of the border and also implement interior enforcement measures. But the bottom line is that some work will have to be finished before legalization begins.
At various times in the last few months, it has appeared that immigration reform in the House was dead. Then it seemed to roar back to life. Now, for the first time, the House GOP leadership has committed itself to a set of reform guidelines. Which means the real fight is just beginning.