As a group of senators unveil their bipartisan proposal for immigration reform today and President Obama heads west this week to rally support for his own ideas, a separate bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House of Representatives is on the verge of finalizing its own designs for comprehensive immigration reform.
The discussions, which top aides close to the talks discussed on the condition that they not be identified, are described as "Washington's best-kept secret."
Last week, House Speaker John Boehner spilled the beans on the secret group, revealing that the lawmakers had been "meeting for three or four years now" and that they are almost ready to present their proposals publicly.
"They basically have an agreement. I've not seen the agreement. I don't know all the pitfalls, but it's, in my view, the right group of members," Boehner, R-Ohio, told the Ripon Society last week during remarks that were closed to the press, as first reported by The Hill. "My theory was that if these folks could work this out, it'd be a big step in the right direction."
Multiple sources say those involved in the talks include Democratic Reps. Xavier Becerra (California), Luis Gutierrez (Illinois), Zoe Lofgren (California), and Republican Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart (Florida), Sam Johnson (Texas) and John Carter (Texas). Spokespersons for each congressional office refused to confirm or deny their representative's participation in the talks on the record. Additional members have also participated, according to sources intimately involved in the talks.
The House's not-yet-finalized proposal is expected to address five general areas of immigration reform, according to aides close to the negotiations. Secure the border, implement a permanent E-verify system nationwide, reform the visa system, address the predicament of how to handle immigrants already in the country illegally in a "fair" and "legal manner" while determining how to handle those who have applied for legal immigration and are currently waiting in line, and reform the immigration system for future applicants.
"We don't want to create an advantage for people who came into the country illegally or overstayed visas while millions of others wait in line," one insider said. "We have to reform the legal immigration system so you have a system that people will go through rather than go around."
Sources said that the talks are so far along, there are draft proposals written into legislation language awaiting final approval before the plan is introduced in the House. One source hinted that the group's proposal could be unveiled in the days surrounding the president's State of the Union address, which is scheduled Feb. 12.
Although he would not confirm his personal participation in the talks, Diaz-Balart, the president of the Congressional Hispanic Conference, admitted that both political parties have used immigration as a campaign tool instead of working earnestly to address the problem. He said he wondered whether there are enough members willing to work across party lines "to solve an issue everybody knows is broken."
"The American people realize that the immigration system is broken, absolutely broken, from A to Z. The question is are we going to continue, knowing that it's broken, to ignore it or are we going to try to solve it? What you're seeing now is a true effort to fix what's broken," Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., said during a phone call Monday. "What I saw today in the Senate is encouraging, and in the House, pretty soon we'll be able to show a lot of work has been done."
The mysterious discussions have taken on an increased level of urgency now that President Obama has been sworn in for a second term in office. Last week, the president also met with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, including Becerra and Gutierrez, at the White House. During that meeting the president identified immigration reform as his top legislative priority. One source said if Congress fails to enact a comprehensive overhaul of the nation's immigration laws by the end of the year, it won't happen until after 2016 when there is a new president.
Lawmakers are considering "deferred adjudication," which would hold anyone accountable who entered the country illegally without kicking them out of the country. While the details are still being worked out, sources explained one proposal under consideration would require anyone who entered the country illegally to plead guilty before a federal court, pay a penalty and serve a probation-type sentence.
"We don't want anyone skipping line," another congressional aide close to the talks said. "If they broke the law, they have to pay a price."
The amount of the fine is among the final 'unclosed issues' as discussions near completion, aides say. Lawmakers are also attempting to settle how quickly to implement the e-verify system. While some lawmakers prefer to enforce the check within one year, others want to delay implementation for two years.
Democrat participants joined the group with the blessing of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and regularly updated her on the informal talks, according to a senior Democratic leadership aide. President Obama has also been aware of the secret discussions the past four years, one source added.
The effort has been ongoing for years with as many as 20 lawmakers involved in talks, but half of the members of the original working group left the House of Representatives after the last election, according to multiple sources. The group met at least once a week every week that the House was in session over the past two years. Sometimes members met up to three times per week, and never for less than an hour, making the success of keeping the meetings secret even more remarkable.
For a party that is anxiously trying to reshape its public perception after being defeated up and down the ballot last November, many top Republicans now appear ready to embrace politically gutsy changes to the law.
Ahead of the immigration blitz this week, former Republican vice president nominee Rep. Paul Ryan, who is not part of the working group, called immigration "a good thing."
"We're here because of immigration. That's what America is. It's a melting pot. We think this is good. We need to make sure it works," Ryan, R-Wis., said on "Meet the Press" Sunday. "There are Republicans and Democrats, many of us are talking to each other, that can come together with a good solution to make sure that this problem is fixed once and for all."
Still, there are some conservatives who warn that the Senate's proposal would amount to amnesty and encourage further illegal immigration.
"When you legalize those who are in the country illegally, it costs taxpayers millions of dollars, costs American workers thousands of jobs and encourages more illegal immigration," Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, wrote in a statement today. "By granting amnesty, the Senate proposal actually compounds the problem by encouraging more illegal immigration."
One of the House's most ardent advocates for strengthening border security, Rep. Steve King, said he has not been asked for any input and doubted its chances to produce an effective plan.
"If you want a particular result, appoint the people that will produce the result that you want," King, R-Iowa, said about the secret discussions during a phone call Monday. "I don't know when eight senators were smarter than 100, or a dozen members of the House were smarter than 435 members. Secret meetings reinforce the people inside the door and isolate folks outside of the door."