Pelosi rejects immigration bill without path to citizenship

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) warned Thursday she won't support immigration reform without a path to citizenship – and stressed that most of her troops feel the same.

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"Overwhelmingly in our caucus, the path to legalization and ultimately citizenship is an important part of our principles," Pelosi said during a press briefing in the Capitol.

"I don't see House Democrats supporting a bill" without a pathway, she added. 

Pelosi was reacting to comments made just hours earlier by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.). Goodlatte said that while he supports "some kind of legal status" for the estimated 11 million people living in the country without papers, he opposes a "special pathway to citizenship" for those folks.

That issue is among the thorniest facing lawmakers trying to overhaul an immigration system that all sides concede is inefficient and full of holes.

A bipartisan group of eight senators introduced a sweeping immigration reform package last week that would allow undocumented people to become citizens after a minimum wait of 13 years. 

Another bipartisan group in the House is working on a similar package, which sources say would extend that minimum window to 15 years.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has held six hearings on immigration this year – three since the bipartisan reform package was released last week – and the panel intends to mark up the legislation next month.

Opponents of a new citizenship pathway say the timeline is irrelevant: They want undocumented immigrants to go to the back of the line behind others who are trying to gain entry into the country through legal channels. Some opponents say those undocumented people should be required to leave the United States in order to get into that line.

Pelosi on Thursday called the Senate package "a very, very good bill." She warned that immigration reform without a road to citizenship would create a subclass of residents. 

"I don't think we want America to be a place where we have two kinds of people," she said. "We always make comments of other countries that have workers come in and they are in a different category no matter how long they've lived in the country and no matter how much they contribute to the economic success of that country."

With the House negotiators struggling to finalize their immigration package, Goodlatte said Thursday that he intends to push ahead with reform hearings in his committee, focusing on one topic at a time. 

He emphasized, however, that his "step-by-step approach" was not designed to replace a comprehensive reform package, should one surface later in the year. 

“No one should take the limited bills that we’re introducing here this week to be in any way an indication of our overall interest in solving all of the various aspects of immigration reform that are before the House and the Senate,” Goodlatte said at a press briefing. “We’re not viewing anything we introduce as a final product.”

Pelosi, meanwhile, said she's optimistic the Senate will pass a comprehensive bill that will lend momentum to the citizenship pathway when it heads over to the House.

"There's strong bipartisan support in the House for a path to legalization, and hence citizenship," she said.  

Russell Berman contributed.