House GOP Backs Legal Status For Undocumented Immigrants

Demonstrators hold up their banners as the shout during a immigration a rally on the National Mall in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013, calling on the House Republican leadership to pass comprehensive immigration re... Demonstrators hold up their banners as the shout during a immigration a rally on the National Mall in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2013, calling on the House Republican leadership to pass comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship. ( AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana) MORE LESS
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In a major step Thursday, House Republican leaders released a broad set of principles for immigration reform that includes offering legal status to the 11 million people living in the United States illegally.

It’s just the first step, and the future of reform remains very murky, with an explosive debate to come. House Republicans have yet to craft bills that reflects these ideas. Many GOP lawmakers don’t want to act on the issue at all.

Under the leadership’s proposal, undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children will be eligible for eventual citizenship. But those who came as adults won’t be promised any such thing, although the proposal does not preclude them from seeking permanent residency and ultimately citizenship through the regular channels.

“There will be no special path to citizenship for individuals who broke our nation’s immigration laws — that would be unfair to those immigrants who have played by the rules and harmful to promoting the rule of law,” reads the document. “Rather, these persons could live legally and without fear in the U.S., but only if they were willing to admit their culpability, pass rigorous background checks, pay significant fines and back taxes, develop proficiency in English and American civics, and be able to support themselves and their families (without access to public benefits).”

The Republican document rejects any negotiations on the Senate-passed bill. It proposes reforms to the legal immigration system that de-emphasize “extended family members and pure luck over employment-based immigration” (a reference to family based immigration and the green card lottery). It calls for an entry-exit visa tracking system and an employment verification system, and puts a premium on enhanced border security.

“We must secure our borders now and verify that they are secure,” it reads. “In addition, we must ensure now that when immigration reform is enacted, there will be a zero tolerance policy for those who cross the border illegally or overstay their visas in the future.”

Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) pitched his members on the proposals at the annual House GOP retreat. “These standards are as far as we are willing to go,” he told Republicans, according to a source in the room. “Nancy Pelosi said yesterday that for her caucus, it is a special path to citizenship or nothing. If Democrats insist on that, then we are not going to get anywhere this year.”

Heritage Action spokesman Dan Holler foreshadowed strong tea party pushback by telling TPM that “[t]he principles released by GOP leaders are a clear embrace of amnesty, and that could hurt the party in November.” Rep. Steve King (R-IA), a vocal opponent of immigration reform, tweeted that there was already an “[i]ntense debate” underway among Republicans about the issue, with the hashtag “#NoAmnesty.”

The reaction on the left was mixed: Democrats such as Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Rep. Luiz Gutierrez (R-IL) expressed cautious optimism and said the move brings Congress closer to agreement. But the AFL-CIO, a major player in the reform debate, which endorsed the Senate-passed bill, excoriated the GOP document as “flimsy” and “callous” toward immigrants.

Even if legislation passes out of the House, Republicans have to deal with Senate Democrats and the White House before any overhaul can become law.

In an attempt to calm conservatives’ fears that President Barack Obama might unilaterally waive parts of the law he doesn’t like, the GOP document declares that “we must enact reform that ensures that a President cannot unilaterally stop immigration enforcement.”

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