US Immigration rally Wash DC 2010
A U.S. immigration rally in Washington, D.C. Shutterstock

House Republicans may make further moves on immigration reform once they get past the primaries this election cycle, so as to avoid backlash from anti-immigration voters, a Republican congressman said Tuesday.

Speaking as part of an immigration panel at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois said the House could put out a border security bill followed by legislation on visas for high-skilled workers.

“The sad thing is we have to get past some of the primaries,” Kinzinger said, or rather admitted.

But getting a bill out of the House of Representatives and to President Barack Obama’s desk wouldn’t be an easy task. The Illinois congressman added that some conservative talk-show hosts have planted the belief in people’s minds that going to conference with the Senate-passed bipartisan bill -- which includes a pathway to legalizing 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. -- is tantamount to amnesty and therefore anathema.

Still, “If you look at where Republicans are, the moderates, the conservatives, I think we are a lot closer together than what we think,” Kinzinger said. “I think we are a lot closer than the media and frankly most people think we really are.”

The issue of comprehensive immigration reform remains a divisive one, though. The GOP leadership has not advanced a bill out of concern for the reaction of its caucus members on the far right, a fact underscored by Kinzinger on Tuesday.

The Obama administration deports 1,100 people per day and is on course to set a record 2 million deportations. Several immigration-advocacy groups have referred to the president as “deporter-in-chief” and have called on him to offer some reprieve from deportations through executive action.

“I think that if border enforcement is the sine qua non for immigration reform you are going to have a very cooperative administration and president,” said Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a former chief of staff in the Obama White House. “The attack on the president is more about camouflaging the differences within the Republican Party because the record of the president for the last five years on border security speaks for itself.”

Republicans want to approach immigration from a border-first standpoint to prevent a repeat of the 1986 Reagan immigration package, which they largely see as a failure. Nearly 3 million illegal immigrants were granted amnesty while border security and employer sanctions fell through the cracks.

“There is a belief on the right side of the aisle that the president is not eager to follow the laws that are passed,” Kinzinger said. “Look at the health-care law and the parts that have been delayed. So this is a raw reality. ... If we can put a guarantee in there that you have border security and then the next steps, even if it’s a comprehensive package, I think we can get this done.”

Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez, also of Illinois, said if Republicans will tell him what security measures they need to achieve comprehensive immigration reform, he will relate that message to his colleagues.

“We will take every reasonable humane effort to secure that border,” the Chicago congressman said. But Gutierrez prefers a comprehensive security proposal that includes border measures and legal consequences for employers who violate the law by hiring people without the proper immigration status. His mantra is that every job created in America must first go to Americans. Immigrants, he said, should fill those positions only if American talent is in short supply.

“That is, we are going to put people in jail that hire people undocumented in America,” he said.