Conservative reaction to the instantly famous House GOP “Principles on Immigration” has been pretty harshly negative, and a variety of complaints are popping up. Heritage’s Derrick Morgan focuses on the dangers of trusting the Obama administration to enforce any new law, nicely connecting with the over-arching conservative argument that Obama is a tyrant who regularly ignores law and Constitution alike. National Review‘s Mark Krikorian dismisses the pledge not to go to conference with the Senate bill as a bit of legislative legerdemain the Senate can easily get around. RedState’s Daniel Horowitz argues that legalization of the undocumented without sending them home first is already the “special path” to citizenship the Principles claim to deplore. Just about everybody complains about the suspiciously secretive process by which the Principles were drafted, and just about everybody smells a rat (viz. the Daily Caller‘s Mickey Kaus, who calls it all a “scam”).

But aside from the growing backlash to legalization as a Trojan Horse for “amnesty” (or as “amnesty” itself), the main flashpoint on the Right, which represents sort of the Sum of All Fears, is expressed by Byron York of the Washington Examiner:

[I]n the very last sentence of the principles, comes the key to the whole thing: “None of this can happen before specific enforcement triggers have been implemented to fulfill our promise to the American people that from here on, our immigration laws will indeed be enforced.”

It is not an exaggeration to say that the future of immigration reform in Congress depends on whether Republican leaders mean what they say in that single sentence.

If they do, and the GOP insists on actual border security measures being in place — not just passed, not just contemplated, but actually in place — before illegal immigrants are allowed to register for legal status, then there will likely be significant Republican support for such a bill. (It might well be a deal-killer for most Democrats, but that is another story.)

If, on the other hand, GOP lawmakers wiggle around the clear meaning of the principles’ last sentence to allow legalization to begin before security measures have been implemented, then the party will be back to the same divisions and animosities that have plagued Republicans since the terrible fights over immigration reform in 2006 and 2007.

York goes on to cite the same Paul Ryan quote on legalization proceeding alongside border enforcement that WaPo’s Greg Sargent identified as a promising sign that an ultimate compromise was possible.

And it’s increasingly clear that compromise is precisely what these conservatives want to rule out, even if it’s a compromise that appears to abet every major demand about immigration reform save one: no legalization at all.

In all the analysis of the GOP’s immigration stance, it’s pretty much been taken for granted that the “self-deportation” stance of Mitt Romney–perhaps his most popular policy stance for movement conservatives, and an important key to his nomination–has to be discarded. But all this insistence on ruling out any “special path” to citizenship, however limited and remote, and on “hard triggers” for legalization that are designed to be unreachable, thinly disguises a fundamental unwillingness to accept the presence of unauthorized immigrants and the hope they will all find life here miserable enough to eventually go home. Illegal border crossings have already slackened significantly. The number of deportations remain very high. So all the talk of “enforcement first” increasingly sounds like an excuse for avoiding or at least delaying legalization in any form.

Conservatives have plenty of grounds for believing the Republican Establishment is being dishonest about its intentions on immigration policy, and is trying to “trick the base,” as I put it yesterday. But for the most part, they are being dishonest, too. They know they can’t just advocate rounding up 11 million people and sending them in boxcars across the border. And “self-deportation” sounds (and is) cruel. But by finding grievous fault with any workable–much less politically feasible–approach for dealing with the undocumented, they are actually fighting to ensure nothing replaces deportations and self-deportations as the de facto policy, particularly in a future Republican administration that owes nothing to Hispanic or Asian voters.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.