Last Thursday, Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Robert Goodlatte (R-Va.) spoke at a National Journal and Atlantic Media event underwritten by the National Association of Broadcasters: “Conversations with the Chair.” The topic of immigration drew considerable interest. While addressing the subject, Chairman Goodlatte claimed that both he and Speaker Boehner want to pass “immigration reform,” but that mistrust of President Obama has prevented the House from acting, saying that “the push by some to have the president act unilaterally in areas because they’re frustrated and tired of waiting for the Congress to act is actually very counterproductive to having legislation done.” Goodlatte also stated that the President’s remarks about acting without waiting for Congress with his “pen” and “phone,”  were dangerous and undermined the separation of powers. He also brought up the House Republicans’ “standards” on immigration, standing by them and claiming that the debate among Republicans when they were introduced was about timing rather than substance.

Goodlatte further elaborated his own position on immigration. In keeping with the proposals he’s supported and approved in the Judiciary Committee in the past, Chairman Goodlatte explained that there are three areas of immigration reform he wants to work on: enforcement, increase of H-1B Visas and green cards for foreign graduate students, and finally, finding the “appropriate” status for those who are here illegally. He claimed that, as an immigration attorney, he is aware that America is a “nation of immigrants” but we are also a “nation of laws” and therefore, enforcement must come first. Mentioning that forty to forty-five percent of illegal aliens are here because they came legally and overstayed their visas, Chairman Goodlatte cautioned the audience that enforcement is not only about border security but interior enforcement, a proper entry-exit system, and state and local enforcement.

During the audience question and answer session, as has become routine at public events where immigration is discussed, claims of “living in the shadows” notwithstanding, a young woman in the front row stood up and said “I’m undocumented” and claimed that she had been in the United States since she was seven. She wanted to know if Goodlatte would vote for amnesty, saying “the time is now.” Goodlatte answered: “What I do not support is a special pathway to citizenship for people who are not lawfully here, to go by people who have spent years lawfully going through the process,”  but that he did want to find an “appropriate legal status” for them, especially those “like this young lady” who were brought to the country as children. He then said: “But I also want to make sure that there is not another family in the future that would take a young child through the desert, through dangerous tunnels, in the back of trucks where they suffocate. And we need to have legal immigration, not illegal.” He claimed that therefore, there must be a “zero tolerance” in the future, but that “doesn’t address the people who are already here.”  Enforcement has to be “up and operating” first.

While Chairman Goodlatte made some accurate points, his idea that there is any “appropriate legal status” for illegal aliens that does not reward those who broke the law rather than those who spent years trying to immigrate lawfully is simply unworkable. If those who are here unlawfully are given the right to stay and work legally, this right will be an amnesty that rewards them for breaking the law, whether or not a “special” means of naturalization only eligible to current illegal aliens is created or not. Likewise, there is no way to grant legalization to those who came to this country as children without encouraging more parents to bring their children illegally in the future. No amount of future enforcement, or claims of zero tolerance, can compete with the message that a mass legalization will send to those contemplating entering the country illegally, that America is prepared to reward illegal actions. Tomorrow’s illegal aliens will always have the same claim to clemency that today’s have, as the flawed 1986 amnesty based on the same calculation shows. Nor is the debate now mostly a matter of timing. On the contrary, that the time to work with the Senate and President to pass immigration bills is not now is perhaps the one point the vast majority of House Republican members do seem to agree on, even if the House leadership would like to move.