Views: Do House GOP leaders mean what they say on immigration?

The House Republican leadership, meeting recently at the party’s winter retreat, kept its new immigration reform “principles” as secret as the 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 contents remained a mystery to almost all GOP lawmakers until Boehner unveiled them at a members-only meeting Jan. 30.

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 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 illegally in the country. “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.

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.

• Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.