House Speaker John A. Boehner, one of the most hard-line members of Congress on immigration, now says that comprehensive reform – which includes a pathway to legalization for the undocumented -- will be a priority in 2013.
For years, Boehner, an Ohio Republican who placed some of the House's most controversial immigration hawks in leadership positions on the committee overseeing the issue, said that under no circumstances would Congress consider comprehensive immigration reform.
"This issue has been around far too long," Boehner said in an interview Thursday with ABC News' "World News." ''A comprehensive approach is long overdue, and I'm confident that the president, myself, others can find the common ground to take care of this issue once and for all."
Boehner’s vow to prioritize overhauling the immigration system is significant.
It comes from someone in a key position to block, or facilitate, efforts in Congress to take up a reform bill. And it’s an indication of how the highest ranking Republicans are absorbing Latinos’ role in President Obama’s re-election as a clear message that they must be willing to compromise on issues of importance to them.
More than 70 percent of Hispanic voters supported Obama, who has been more open to comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws.
"I'm not talking about a 3,000-page bill," Boehner said at a Friday press conference. "What I'm talking about is a common-sense, step-by-step approach to secure our borders, allow us to enforce the laws and fix a broken immigration system."
Two years ago, Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said that under no circumstances would Congress consider comprehensive immigration reform.
Boehner, who in his position at the helm wields considerable influence over how far a bill can get in the House, and even whether an issue gets attention in committees and on the floor, has been among the most hard-line members of Congress on immigration.
If people want to become citizens, they need to do it the right way. Go home, sign up, get in line like everybody else...Our schools, our hospitals, are being overrun by illegal immigrants.
- House Speaker John Boehner, Republican, in 2010 interview
Boehner has vigorously opposed any pathway to legalization for undocumented immigrants. He voted against the DREAM Act, which would have allowed undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as minors a way to legalize as long as they meet a strict set of criteria.
Boehner supports amending the 14th Amendment to deny the U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants automatic citizenship. He said many immigrants "come here so that their children can become U.S. citizens." And he wants to reinforce border security, including putting “boots on the ground,” as he said to reporters years ago.
Asked in a 2010 interview with The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review if he supports any measure that would provide a pathway to legalization for undocumented immigrants, Boehner said firmly: “I don’t, no.”
“If people want to become citizens, they need to do it the right way,” Boehner said. “Go home, sign up, get in line like everybody else.”
“Our schools, our hospitals, are being overrun by illegal immigrants,” he said.
He dismissed outright any notion that comprehensive immigration reform would arise for discussion in the House under his watch. Indeed, Boehner's appointees to the House's top leadership posts on immigration committees included ultra-conservatives such as Reps. Lamar Smith of Texas, Steve King of Iowa, and Elton Gallegly of California.
“There is not a chance that immigration is going to move to the Congress,” Boehner said. “The American people will not let us look at any kind of broader immigration bill until they’re convinced we have the ability to do what we say we’re going to do.”
Earlier this year, when fellow Republican, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, tried to float a proposal that was dubbed a “conservative alternative” to the DREAM Act, Boehner helped quash it.
The senator’s bill would have legalized certain young people who came to the United States while they were children by granting non-immigrant visas so they could remain in the U.S. for college or to serve in the military.
Considered by Rubio and some more moderate Republicans as an olive branch of sorts to Hispanics on the important issue of immigration, Boehner torpedoed the plan. He told reporters that the plan did not stand a chance of passing in the GOP-led House.
“I found it of interest,” Boehner said tepidly. “But the problem with this issue is that we’re operating in a very hostile political environment. To deal with a very difficult issue like this, I think it would be difficult at best.”
That was a critical juncture, one that could have benefited the Republicans with Latinos, who had grown critical of Obama for voicing support for comprehensive immigration reform, but not putting action behind his words, in their view.
Some Democrats -- including U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, who is chair of the immigration task force of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus -- also were so frustrated with what they perceived as Obama’s lack of force on immigration that they said they were willing to back Rubio’s plan.
Obama then announced in June a new initiative that would offer a two-year reprieve to DREAMers, as they’re called, from deportation, as well as work permits. Polls showed that Obama’s Latino support, arguably higher than Romney’s – even with Latino frustration over his unfulfilled promises – jumped considerably after that.
Rubio quietly abandoned his DREAM Act-light plan.
Republicans, including the Mitt Romney campaign, blamed the lack of immigration reform on Obama, who they said had used the issue to court Latinos in 2008, but then abandoned it.
Obama has said that Republicans stymied efforts to address illegal immigration, and blamed them for dooming the DREAM Act, which passed the House in 2010, but not in Senate, where a 55-to-41 vote fell short of the 60 votes needed to break a GOP filibuster.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said after the election that the vote showed that Democrats are the party of diversity, and he plans to bring up an immigration reform bill next year. He said Republicans would block such legislation at their own "peril."
Meanwhile, Hispanics say they will hold both Democrats and Republicans accountable on immigration reform.
"We're going to take on the Democrats, too, and Obama," said Angelo Falcon, president of the National Institute for Latino Public Policy. "We came through for him, for them. It's time now, with immigration reform, to stop the B.S. and do something."
Some Hispanics say the Republican willingness to act on immigration reform will test the Obama administration's true commitment to the matter.
"The Democrats have really wanted to keep the immigration debate open" and not really take action on it, said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles and former chief of the U.S. Office of Citizenship during the George W. Bush administration.
"Some Republicans were reluctant to support immigration reform publicly because they felt they would have egg on their face," he said, "there was very little bipartisanship with Obama, and to make a bipartisan bill happen you have to trust you can work with the other party. If bipartisanship doesn't evolve in the next Congress, the numbers just won't be there to pass immigration reform."
For their part, some Republicans are renewing their vow to stay hawkish on immigration.
Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina tweeted that Congress has to change 14th Amendment to solve illegal immigration. Graham tweeted, "Without changes in birthright citizenship, we will have future waves of illegal immigration."
And two-term Sen. David Vitter said after Obama's re-election that he is not ready to support a bill that includes a pathway to legalization. He said Obama was re-elected because of his charisma.
"The momentum is here for comprehensive immigration reform," said Clarissa Martinez of the National Council of La Raza, the nation's largest Hispanic civil rights group. "But what is absolutely clear is that it will need the leadership of the Republican party."
"This is a great opportunity for Republicans to start rebuilding their relationship with the Latino electorate, and regain the ground with Latinos that George Bush had started building."
Elizabeth Llorente can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on https://twitter.com/Liz_Llorente