House Speaker John A. Boehner announced Tuesday that he has hired a longtime advocate of legalizing illegal immigrants to be an adviser, signaling that the Republican is still intent on trying to pass an immigration bill during this congressional session.
Immigrant rights advocates cheered the move as a sign of Mr. Boehner's dedication to action. Those who want a crackdown on illegal immigration said the top Republican in the House has moved closer to embracing amnesty by hiring Rebecca Tallent, a former staffer for Sen. John McCain and fellow Arizona Republican Jim Kolbe.
"Tallent's hiring suggests he really does still want to push an amnesty through the House, which to me suggests that the immigration hawks still have their work cut out for them," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. "She is a professional amnesty advocate."
Ms. Tallent is leaving a job as immigration policy director for the Bipartisan Policy Center and will join Mr. Boehner's staff Wednesday, putting her in the center of one of the thorniest issues in Congress.
Mr. Boehner has become a key figure in the immigration debate. He faces immense pressure from immigrant rights activists who want legalization and from House Republicans who are warning him not to pursue legalization until the border is more secure.
Mr. Boehner has faced prayer vigils and protests from immigration rights activists at his home. In Congress, some Republicans have suggested that his speakership could be in jeopardy if he tries to pass legislation granting illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship.
The Ohio Republican has said he is committed to acting on the issue but has rejected Senate Democrats' approach of a broad bill combining security, legalization and a rewrite of the immigration system.
"The speaker remains hopeful that we can enact step-by-step, common-sense immigration reforms — the kind of reforms the American people understand and support," spokesman Michael Steel said. "Becky Tallent, a well-known expert in this field of public policy, is a great addition to our team and that effort."
But in a city where personnel moves are watched as key policy signals, both sides saw Ms. Tallent's hiring as an indication of where Mr. Boehner wants the immigration debate to go.
She has been involved in writing a number of broad legalization bills, including one for Mr. Kolbe and two for Mr. McCain in the past decade. She was also a senior policy adviser during Mr. McCain's failed 2008 presidential campaign, which included traveling as a domestic policy adviser for vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.
Mr. Boehner appeared to have nailed the door shut on immigration last month when he said he wouldn't enter into negotiations on the Senate bill.
But Democratic leaders and President Obama appeared to move in Mr. Boehner's direction, saying they would be open to the speaker's approach of dividing immigration reform into separate bills. It's still unclear whether all of the bills would have to pass at about the same time or whether Republicans would win border security legislation first.
Mr. Krikorian said he still thinks the chances of a final bill reaching Mr. Obama's desk next year are slim but that Mr. Boehner's hiring decision is worrisome.
"Basically what that means is that the person who ran John McCain's amnesty push last time is now running amnesty for Speaker Boehner," he said.
Immigration rights activists warn Republicans that they must take action or face a political backlash, particularly in the 2016 presidential election.
"If Republicans want to broaden their appeal to diverse voters — really, any American who expects leaders to lead and solve problems — they need to talk less and do more," said Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of America's Voice.
House Democrats say passing immigration reform could rescue a year devoid of other major accomplishments.
Ms. Tallent didn't return a call seeking comment Tuesday.
Ana Navarro, who worked with Ms. Tallent on the 2008 McCain presidential campaign and who has pushed Republicans to tackle immigration reform, said hiring Ms. Tallent was a smart move for Mr. Boehner.
"It tells me that he's looking to find solutions to some of the complex issues," she said. "You don't hire Becky Tallent if you don't want to get something done. If all you want to do is kick the can down the road and just talk about the issue, you don't hire Becky Tallent. If you want to solve the issue, you hire Becky Tallent to work with you."
Ms. Tallent is a native of Tucson, Ariz., and Ms. Navaro said her knowledge of border issues will help House Republicans as they try to craft legislation.
"She brings a particular sensitivity to the border issues, to the immigration issues. She's pragmatic," Ms. Navaro said.
Bipartisan Policy Center President Jason Grumet said Ms. Tallent's experience will help her sift through the issues and find something that will work.
"The House is going to continue to chart its own course on immigration reform. Becky understands the issues — both those that should be on the table and those that have derailed past reform efforts," Mr. Grumet said in a statement.