House lawmakers pull immigration to the right

Lawmakers in the House are expected to include a longer path to citizenship and a larger guest-worker program than the Senate did in its rival plan for immigration reform, people with knowledge of the discussions said.

Members of the House coalition have been tight-lipped about their proposal, but two lawmakers in recent days have signaled that it will be more conservative than the 844-page plan released last week by the Senate’s Gang of Eight.

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“There’s a lot of things in the Senate bill that are right, but the reality is that the Senate is controlled by Democrats and the House is controlled by Republicans, and what you’re going to see out of the House is probably a more Republican bill,” Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), a conservative member of the House group, said Wednesday at an event sponsored by the Heritage Foundation.

A Democratic member of the group, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (Ill.), told an audience in Chicago on Monday that the Senate bill would be “a more moderate bill than the bill that comes out of the House.”

The group, which has been working on and off in secret for more than four years, is hoping to complete its bill in the coming weeks. But talks have stalled, in part, over the guest-worker component of the legislation, sources say. 

Democrats are worried that the four Republicans in the group are walking away from a pact struck by business and labor groups that formed the basis for the Senate bill’s guest-worker program.

Labrador has publicly criticized the business-labor deal and is pushing for a much higher cap on the number of visas for low-skilled workers.

“It would be fundamentally unfair for us to punish businesses and not provide them an avenue to actually hire … enough people [legally],” Labrador told reporters Wednesday, referring to provisions that would penalize businesses that hire illegal immigrants.

Democratic sources say Republicans in the House group want to nearly double the maximum number of guest-worker visas, which was set at 200,000 in the Senate bill.

On the path to citizenship, sources briefed on the talks say that the minimum number of years it would take an person living in the U.S. illegally to gain citizenship would be 15 in the House bill, compared to 13 years in the Senate measure. That is because unlike the Senate gang, the House negotiators do not intend to reduce the number of years that a legal permanent resident with a green card must wait before applying for citizenship.

Both bills would create a decade-long provisional legal status for illegal immigrants to work in the U.S., pay back taxes and learn English while the government works to meet benchmarks for securing the southern border. In the Senate bill, illegal  immigrants given the provisional legal status must wait 10 years to obtain a green card for permanent status and then another three to apply for citizenship.

Sources cautioned that because the House group has not reached a final agreement, those details could change before a bill is released.

“They’re not there yet,” one aide close to the group said. “I think they’re going to get there, but there’s a chance it could run aground.”

Publicly, members voiced optimism about reaching an agreement. Gutiérrez  will join a Republican negotiator, Rep. John Carter (R-Texas), for an event in San Antonio, Texas, to build support for immigration reform. It will come a week after Gutiérrez  made a joint appearance to discuss the topic in Chicago with Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), and it will be the first time two members of the House group will appear together in public.

“We’re almost there,” Carter said.

Carter would not rule out releasing a final bill before Monday, but several other officials with knowledge of the negotiations said it was unlikely the legislation would be finished before May.

The coalition only formally acknowledged its existence — which had been an open secret in Washington since the beginning of the year — last week after the Gang of Eight released its legislative text.

“We didn’t come out of the closet. We were dragged out,” Carter joked.

The four Democratic members of the group briefed the House Democratic caucus on Wednesday. “This isn’t a Democratic bill. This is a compromise bill,” Gutiérrez  warned his colleagues, according to a person in the closed-door meeting.

Frank Sharry, a reform advocate and executive director of America’s Voice, said he has more concerns about the possible differences with the Senate on the guest-worker program than on the path to citizenship. 

The Senate deal won the support of both the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO. Fighting between the two sides in 2007 has been blamed for the failure of immigration reform legislation during the George W. Bush administration.

“Minor differences with respect to the path to citizenship wouldn’t be a deal-breaker, but changes to the business-labor deal might well be. There is no wiggle room,” Sharry said. “If [Republicans] demand too much, they could easily upset the delicate balance the Senate bill represents.”

With a conservative Republican majority, the way forward for immigration reform in the House is more uncertain than in the Senate. GOP leaders have not decided whether to move a single bill or break it into pieces to improve its chances for passage. Leaders of the House Judiciary Committee, who have reacted coolly to the Senate proposal, plan to detail their plans for legislation on Thursday morning.

A Democrat in the House immigration group, Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), cited the indecision of the Republican leadership as an obstacle. 

“Unfortunately, on the House side, it looks like some Republicans are getting tied up in knots. I’m not sure how they want to proceed,” Becerra, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said during a press briefing in the Capitol.

But he also suggested that the eight members in the coalition had never been closer to a deal “than we are today.”

— Mike Lillis contributed to this report.