Lynn Sweet: Immigration in play for Illinois congressmen
BY LYNN SWEET Washington Bureau Chief May 2, 2014 9:44PM
House Speaker John Boehner Ohio listens as GOP leaders speak to reporters following a Republican strategy meeting on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, April 29, 2014. (AP Photo)
Updated: June 5, 2014 6:27AM
WASHINGTON — When it comes to Congress tackling immigration, GOP Reps. Aaron Schock and Adam Kinzinger are the most out front of the six Illinois Republicans in the House. Schock even told me, “I’m encouraging my leadership, my colleagues to lean in on it” with a step-by-step approach.
House members returned to the Capitol after spring break to find immigration back in play — a bit — spurred by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, mouthing off while talking to Rotarians back home.
Boehner mocked GOP colleagues who did not want to deal with immigration because, he said, using a whining voice, “It’s just too hard.”
Hard it is, even in Illinois, where the Republican “establishment” — that is, business leaders, an influential core of political contributors and former officials such as House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. — are aggressively pro-immigration.
Their ranks are part of the leadership of the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition, which champions immigration reform and coordinates lobbying efforts to coax Republicans toward action.
“That’s extraordinary because no place else in the country do you have this happening,” said Rebecca Shi, executive director of the coalition.
Even as Boehner rolled back his zinger Tuesday to keep peace with conservatives and again said President Barack Obama is not a trusted partner on immigration, Capitol tea leaf readers still saw it as Boehner willing to try again to get something done.
The Democratic-controlled Senate passed a sweeping immigration overhaul on June 27 with a path to citizenship for the estimated more than 11 million in the U.S. illegally. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who had reservations at an earlier stage about border security, eventually was one of the 14 Republicans who voted for the Senate immigration legislation.
Since then, immigration has stalled in the GOP-run House and remains stuck as the first anniversary of passage of the Senate bill approaches.
When I last wrote about the efforts of the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition in February, none of the six Illinois House Republicans was taking any particular lead, even with Kirk providing cover with his vote, the coalition supplying a safe political haven and most important, no chance of a primary challenge from the right since the filing period to run in the March primary had passed.
Things have changed. And the coalition deserves credit for its work.
On April 23 in Chicago, the coalition organized an immigration event significant because of the participation of people who vote in Congress, Schock and Kinzinger, via videotaped statements. Schock was in Asia and Kinzinger, a major in the Air National Guard, was on military duty.
Schock goes the furthest, stating, “We need a clear path to citizenship for workers who are already here and a fair and efficient on-ramp for those who want to come here.”
Kinzinger stops short of citizenship, saying “we must work hard” to find a way “to bring undocumented workers out of the shadows, legally entering the work force.”
Add to that Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., who also had been wooed by the coalition. Though he did not appear at the event, in an interview on April 22 with Crain’s Chicago Business Shimkus said, “We also have to address the 12 million undocumented immigrants who are already here by moving them legally into the work force.”
GOP Senate nominee Jim Oberweis came to the coalition event to try to shed baggage from his 2004 Senate run where he rallied against “illegal aliens.” He is running against Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who is the father of the “DREAM” movement — working for years to help young people in the U.S. illegally through no fault of their own. The 2014 Oberweis said at the event that DREAMers should be given a “clear path” to citizenship.
All this represents progress.
Schock and Kinzinger did not stake out new positions on immigration, but their voices, amplified at the high-profile Chicago coalition event, plus the Shimkus statement, were heard in D.C. and seen as contributing to “changing the narrative.” That could add pressure on GOP House leaders or serve as counterweights to the anti-immigration GOP wing wrestling with Boehner over immigration.
So what about the other three Illinois House Republicans?
The most important member of the Illinois GOP House delegation is Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., who as chief deputy whip is a member of Boehner’s leadership team. As part of the team, it’s not realistic to expect Roskam to get ahead of Boehner who, as the leader, has to be concerned about members who face primaries and for whom immigration is a tricky issue.
When it comes to trusting Obama on immigration, Roskam is the most wary Republican in the Illinois delegation.
Roskam “has repeatedly expressed that the immigration system is broken and should be reformed through a step-by-step approach instead of the Senate’s comprehensive bill,” his spokeswoman, Stephanie Kittredge, told me. “However, the president has not demonstrated that he has capacity to work with Congress and find common ground, and meanwhile continues to call line-of-scrimmage audibles on his own health care law. The American people want to be assured that the same make-it-up-as-you-go strategy won’t happen on immigration bills.”
Rep. Randy Hultgren, R-Ill., has been talking about immigration for some time, “listening to all sides” and is looking for a step-by-step approach. He believes it’s not feasible to deport undocumented immigrants, but they need to step out of the shadows and make right by the law. Hultgren’s first step would be to move on legislation where there is much agreement, such as a bill he co-sponsors to retain high-skilled workers.
With the exception of freshman Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill., the other five GOP Illinois House members have nominal Democratic rivals and will be re-elected in November.
Immigration could be an election factor as Davis battles Democrat Ann Callis for the downstate seat. So if and when Davis deals with immigration in a significant way is a campaign decision.
As for the timing for votes on border security, visas, DREAMers and the millions in the U.S. illegally, Schock said, “We have to get through this political season so that people are in a position where they can make some tough decisions and ultimately cast a vote.”