By Paul C. Barton, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON - As their own chamber contemplates action on immigration reform, Republican House members from Tennessee remain critical of the bill their fellow in-state Republicans, Sens. Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander, helped pass in the Senate.
The House Republican Conference meets Wednesday to decide what, if any, route to take on the issue.
The Senate bill, passed two weeks ago, provides a path to green cards and eventual citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. Although Corker, with Alexander as a cosponsor, injected $46 billion in border-security provisions, many conservatives consider those assurances too riddled with loopholes.
Even more importantly, they view the Senate bill as an amnesty-first measure. Corker, however, said no one has a plan to round up and deport 11 million people and that bringing them out in the open was the "moral thing" to do.
Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville, defended the Senate bill, saying the House should vote on the measure.
"Both of Tennessee's Senators voted for it, and it has the best chance to move forward," Cooper said in a statement.
"Comprehensive immigration reform has widespread support from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the faith community, including the Southern Baptist Convention and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops."
But among House Republicans from Tennessee, hostility toward the measure runs deep.
Rep. Phil Roe of Johnson City typified the opposition.
"I am opposed to the Senate bill because it includes a pathway to citizenship without sufficient protections to ensure our laws won't be broken in the future," Roe said in a statement.
"I am glad Speaker (John) Boehner has clearly said the House will not take up the Senate bill and will consider our own approach, which must begin with border security."
Similar feelings steer Middle Tennessee Republicans.
"Rather than adopting the Senate's amnesty bill, the House should proceed through regular order â€" no special 'gangs' or 'supercommittees' â€" to pass legislation that will finally secure our border," said Rep. Rep. Scott DesJarlais of Jasper.
"Once our border is secure, we can begin to look at what other changes are needed to fix our immigration system. I think we might find however, that rather than creating a host of new laws, all we really need to do is enforce the existing ones."
Rep. Diane Black of Gallatin added: "There is no place for amnesty in immigration reform, period; the first step to addressing the problem of illegal immigration must be securing our borders."
Like DesJarlais, Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Brentwood said the House should avoid forming special groups like the Senate's "Gang of Eight."
"The Senate amnesty bill is dead on arrival in the House of Representatives," Blackburn said.
"One of the great lessons we learned from Obamacare is that passing comprehensive reform packages creates more problems than they solve. The Senate bill is the wrong approach for America."
Blackburn added: "I think Tennesseans want us to take up smaller bills that go through regular order and are focused on specific problems within our current immigration system. I do not believe in amnesty, and if we are going to make any changes to our system, we must start by securing our borders."
Rep. Stephen Fincher of Frog Jump said his concern is giving the White House discretion.
"You just never know what to expect out of President Obama when it comes to enforcing laws," he said. "Time and time again, he picks and chooses major policy decisions."
Fincher added: "These sort of actions just aren't acceptable when it comes to the immigration bill, where the border security provision has to happen. It seems that it's all politics when it comes to this president, which makes reforming immigration very difficult."
Rep. John Duncan Jr. of Knoxville, though, said he understands why immigrants want to come to the United States. But he added that Americans are struggling, too.
"I have read that half the world lives on $2 or less a day, so I certainly have sympathy for people who want to come here," Duncan said.
"But we have to have some type of immigration system and a secure border or our schools, hospitals, jails, roads, and everything would just be overrun. We have laws now not being enforced, so any bill to create a new immigration system will make no difference unless it is enforced. I am opposed to any kind of blanket amnesty. Before we even talk about allowing other people to come here, we need to get our own employment situation in shape."
And Rep. Scott Fleischmann of Ooltewah said: "Our first priority with regard to immigration reform must be protecting and securing our borders. Current laws need to be enforced and we cannot reward those who have come here illegally."
Contact Paul C. Barton at email@example.com