The most extensive leak of a soon-to-be released “principles” document that will outline a House Republican plan to overhaul the nation’s immigration system came from Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) on Wednesday. He told Chuck Todd on MSNBC that the outline would include border security, work authorization, and legal status by way of a “probationary status,” but that it would not have a “special pathway” to citizenship, as in the Senate immigration bill. In 2013, Ryan was a supporter of a bill that includes strong border security and citizenship provisions. But as House Republicans prepare to release a new, narrower proposal that they hope has a better chance of passage, Ryan seemed to step back from his previous support for reform, suggesting that something like the Senate bill would be “amnesty.”
During his interview, Ryan said that undocumented immigrants would be given a “probationary” status that would allow them to work at the same time that the border is being secured. After they satisfy rigorous pre-conditions of a probationary period including paying fines and learning English, they can then apply for “regular work permits.” Eventually some immigrants can apply for lawful permanent residence after getting into the back of the line behind legal immigrants “who did things right in the first place.”
RYAN: You got to make sure that this isn’t amnesty … we want to write a law that [the President] can’t avoid, meaning with respect to securing the border and interior enforcement.
TODD: Is citizenship for the folks who are here, undocumented, here illegally, would citizenship ever be available to them under the Republican plan?
RYAN: So no new special pathway. What this debate in the Senate bill said was that there would actually be a special pathway for undocumented immigrants to get citizenship. We’re not going to do that. We’re looking at ideas based on these principles which says that we want a system where you can come out of the shadows, you can get a work permit, and you can be on probation and you have to satisfy the terms of your probation while the border is getting secured, while interior enforcement. If those things are met, you’ve satisfied the terms of your probation, you’re not on welfare, you pay a fine, you learn English and civics, and the border has been secured and interior enforcement independently verified, then you can get a regular work permit.
And if you want to get in line to get a green card like any other immigrant, you can do that, you just have to get to the back of the line so that we preference that legal immigrant who did things right in the first place. That’s the kind of you know, broad-brush here. That’s the kind of process we envision, which is not a special pathway to citizenship. And that’s not automatically going to in any way give an undocumented immigrant citizenship.
We’ll give them a work permit, we’ll give them probationary status, they have to earn their way to a non-probationary work permit while we make sure we secure the border. We’ll do it in a way that the President can’t get around and that’s what we’re concerned about.
Although he now dismisses the Senate bill for providing a “special pathway” to citizenship, Ryan defended the bill in 2013 and wanted to see it brought to a vote. He said then that he would “debate anyone” over the characterization of the Senate bill as amnesty because “amnesty is wiping the slate clean and not paying any penalty for having done something wrong.” At the time, he considered the Senate bill to be earned legalization.
Still, Ryan’s recent comments reveals less about his position shift, than it does about selling reform to Tea Party members. As Washington Post’s Greg Sargent puts it, “Republicans think it’s politically too hard to grant actual legalization before triggers are met, let alone citizenship, because the right will call it ‘amnesty.’” And even House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has found it difficult to win over Tea Party members, admitting to talk show host Jay Leno last week, “There’s nothing I could do that was ever conservative enough for them.”