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Remember when top House GOPers were sympathetic to unauthorized immigrants? It was 2013

Rep. Bob Goodlatte, like many House GOPers, has shifted on immigration from 2013 to 2014.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, like many House GOPers, has shifted on immigration from 2013 to 2014.
T.J. Kirkpatrick

On Thursday, Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee grilled Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson over what they said was the Obama administration's "refusal" to enforce immigration law.

Then, in the afternoon, the House GOP approved an amendment by Rep. Steve King that would require the Department of Justice to investigate the administration's immigration policy.

Right now, Republicans are taking a fairly hard line on immigration — calling on the Obama administration to deport more unauthorized immigrants and declining to put forward any broader plans for reform. But it's worth remembering that at this time last year, most House Republicans sounded very different on the issue.

Back in 2013, many House Republicans — including those on the House Judiciary Committee — were talking about giving legal status, and possibly citizenship, to many or all unauthorized immigrants.

Take Rep. Bob Goodlatte. Back in December 2012, when both parties agreed that immigration reform would be a priority, House leadership appointed Rep. Goodlatte to lead the House Judiciary Committee. At the time, conventional wisdom was that leadership trusted Goodlatte to help them get immigration reform done, and to make the committee's tone less strident than it had under its previous chair, Lamar Smith.

And throughout the first half of 2013, that's exactly what Goodlatte (as well as House Immigration Subcommittee Chair Trey Gowdy, who had edged out Steve King for the position) did: they held a series of hearings to "educate" themselves and their colleagues on various immigration issues, as well as private briefings for Republicans.

This new tone extended to the issue of unauthorized immigrants. During the opening statement of his very first immigration hearing as chair, Goodlatte reminded his colleagues that unauthorized immigrants were "real people, with real problems, trying to provide for their families."

And, while both he and Gowdy said that granting a "path to citizenship" to unauthorized immigrants was an "extreme" position, they said that mass deportation was the other extreme — and asked whether there was a middle ground that could be found between the two. Gowdy's very first question as Subcommittee Chair was asking Julian Castro, "Could you accept legalization without citizenship?"

That's actually a position that both Goodlatte and Gowdy held for several months. Last summer, they held a hearing on young unauthorized immigrants, or DREAMers. (At the time, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was saying he was going to introduce a "KIDS Act" that would legalize these immigrants — but the bill never materialized.)

Goodlatte's very first question to the two immigrants who appeared on the panel was whether their parents would be willing to accept second-tier legal status if it meant that their children could become citizens:

The young immigrants who Goodlatte and company were discussing giving citizenship to last summer are, for the most part, the same immigrants who are eligible for President Obama's "Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals" program (DACA).

Over the last several months, criticism of Obama's executive actions have, very gradually, drowned out calls for reform — both by Goodlatte and the caucus at large.

That culminated in today's hearing, when Goodlatte harangued Secretary Johnson, at length, over a study by the Center for Immigration Studies showing that thousands of "unlawful and criminal aliens" were released into the community in 2013. Furthermore, Goodlatte said that the administration's implementation of immigration policy prevented the United States from deporting "millions" of unauthorized immigrants. That sounds awfully close to an endorsement of mass deportation — a policy that, last year, he agreed was "extreme."

Comparing how the Judiciary Committee sounds today to how it sounded then, it's clear that the debate over immigration within the House GOP isn't just a matter of a "pro-reform" faction fighting an "anti-reform" faction, or of Speaker John Boehner fighting the rest of his caucus. Many Republicans were open to immigration reform that included some form of legal status for unauthorized immigrants at the beginning of this Congress — and have since shifted.