House Republican leaders back legal status in immigration push

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CAMBRIDGE, Md. — House Republican leaders are calling for illegal immigrants to be able to “live legally and without fear in the U.S.” after they have met a series of requirements and after “specific enforcement triggers” have been met, according to new principles presented Thursday to lawmakers.

The endorsement of a path to legal status for many of the nation’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants is a significant step toward comprehensive immigration reform for a party that has long resisted policies that some deride as amnesty.

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Inside the Republican conference meeting, Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) argued it was “important to act” on immigration reform from an economic and national security standpoint. But he drew a clear line and said that if Democrats insist on a faster path to citizenship, the effort will fall apart.

"These standards are as far as we are willing to go,” Boehner said, according to a person 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.”

"Having said that,” he added, “I believe these standards represent a fair, principled way for us to solve this issue, beginning with securing our borders and enforcing our laws.”

In the one-page document obtained by The Hill from two congressional aides, House Republicans explicitly rule out a “special path to citizenship,” but they say that it is in the nation’s interest for people who entered the country illegally to come forward and register with the government without fear of deportation.

“Our national and economic security depend on requiring people who are living and working here illegally to come forward and get right with the law,” the GOP standards say. “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.

“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 Republicans say that “criminals, gang members and sex offenders” would not be eligible for legal status.

“Finally, 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,” the principles state.

The Republicans do not say what specific triggers must be meant.

Children who were brought into the country illegally “through no fault of their own” by their parents would be eligible for legal residence and citizenship.

The document also calls for strengthened border and interior security, a biometric visa-tracking system, a new E-Verify system for employers, reforms to the high-skilled visa system and a temporary worker program.

Boehner presented the principles to rank-and-file members Thursday afternoon at the annual party retreat in Cambridge, Md. The response of lawmakers will determine whether the GOP leadership moves ahead with specific legislation.

Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), a Democratic architect of the comprehensive immigration bill the Senate passed last June, said the principles leave “a real possibility” for the passage of immigration reform through both chambers in 2014.

“While these standards are certainly not everything we would agree with, they leave a real possibility that Democrats and Republicans, in both the House and Senate, can in some way come together and pass immigration reform that both sides can accept,” Schumer said in a statement. “It is a long, hard road, but the door is open.”

Boehner has long said the House would not take up the Senate bill and would instead pursue a “step-by-step” approach of considering immigration in several discreet bills. For any immigration bill to get a vote, he has said, it must first gain support from a majority of the Republican conference.

Conservative groups and lawmakers opposed to an immigration push have stepped up their activity in recent weeks, trying to head off a march to the House floor by the GOP leadership.

The blueprint also seeks to address a core concern of conservatives who are open to an immigration overhaul — distrust of the Obama administration to enforce any law that Congress passes.

“Faced with a consistent pattern of administrations of both parties only selectively enforcing our nation’s immigration laws, we must enact reform that ensures that a President cannot unilaterally stop immigration enforcement,” the principles state.

They also state that once 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.”

A leading House Democratic advocate of immigration, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (Ill.), reacted cautiously to the Republican principles, saying that while they represent a major shift for the GOP, “there is a long way to go.”

“The details really matter and I have not seen anything concrete from the Republicans so I am not in a position to say 'yes' or 'no' to anything,” he said.

Gutierrez’s support for any House immigration plan will be crucial because with conservative opposition expected, Republican leaders will need Democratic votes to pass virtually any legislation.

Republicans are not expected to move forward with legislation right away — if they do at all. Earlier Thursday, the party’s campaign chief, Rep. Greg Walden (Ore.), said any floor votes are “probably months out.”

While several outside advocates welcomed the principles as a first step toward reform, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka panned them as insufficient and called the legal status Republicans endorsed a “half measure.”

“Seven months after 68 Senators overwhelmingly passed a bipartisan immigration bill, House Republicans respond with a flimsy document that only serves to underscore the callous attitude Republicans have toward our nation’s immigrants,” Trumka said.

— This story was last updated at 5:53 p.m.