Partisan gap on immigration reform 'almost irreconcilable,' says Barton

A senior House Republican said Thursday that the ideological differences dividing the parties on the thorny topic of immigration reform are "almost irreconcilable."

While most Republicans want illegal immigrants to be treated as criminals who broke the law, said Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas), Democratic leaders want "a more lenient policy" allowing some illegal residents to remain an active part of U.S. society.

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"We have that basic sticking point — the difference between legal immigration and illegal immigration," Barton told CNN.

The remarks are a bad omen for Democratic immigration-reform supporters — including President Obama — who failed this year to pass targeted changes but are vowing to continue the push in the 112th Congress. 

The DREAM Act — which would carve a pathway to permanent residency (and ultimately citizenship) for certain students brought illegally to the U.S. by their parents — passed the House this month but couldn't get the 60 votes required to defeat a GOP filibuster in the Senate. Opponents argued that anyone living illegally in the country — even those brought involuntary as kids — should be treated as a criminal, not rewarded with amnesty and benefits.

Although the Obama administration has been deporting illegal residents at a record clip over the last two years, conservatives say he hasn't gone far enough to stem the tide or control the borders.

Appearing on CNN opposite Barton, Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) said it's simply unrealistic to round up and deport the millions of illegals already in the country. He's advocating reforms to focus the deportation efforts on those who pose a more direct threat — such as those who've committed other crimes — while allowing students and workers ways to gain a more permanent foothold in the U.S.


"I'm willing to be tough, and I'm not interested in having a system where we allow people who don't do it the right way to continue to come in. I'm just willing to face the facts, as I think the majority of Americans are, that we've got 11 million people [living illegally in the U.S.]," Becerra said. "The reality is, you have to come up with a rational approach." 

Becerra suggested the nation's enforcement policies disproportionately target illegal workers rather than the domestic businesses that hire them. 

"There may be a violation of law [by] the immigrant who comes into the country," he said, "but that's preceded by the violation in the law that occurs by the employer, the American, who is willing to hire folks illegally in this country."

The issue is rife with political implications, as both parties are racing to court the fast-growing bloc of Hispanic voters. Barton said he's not worried that the GOP's hard-line approach to illegal immigration will haunt the party at the polls.

"We consider the Hispanic vote a key cornerstone of our base," Barton said. "It doesn't make sense, as the majority party, to try to exclude or to ignore any voting bloc that's as strong and as conservative as the Hispanic voters are in Texas."