House Republicans crafting DREAM Act-like immigration bill

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) are drafting legislation to provide a path to citizenship for immigrant children who were brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents, their offices said Thursday.

The bill, which a Cantor spokeswoman said is in its “early stages,” would be the first House Republican proposal to address the status of illegal immigrants, but it would not go nearly as far as Democrats want. While the legislation resembles the DREAM Act that is part of the Senate immigration bill, aides said it would not be as broad.

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The Senate Dream Act provides an expedited path to citizenship for people brought into the U.S. illegally as children and who have attended college or served in the military. The House GOP proposal, by contrast, could be limited to younger people.

“As part of the step-by-step approach the House is taking to address immigration reform, Leader Cantor and I are working on a bill to provide a legal status to those who were brought illegally to the U.S. as children by their parents,” Goodlatte said in a statement Thursday.

“These children came here through no fault of their own and many of them know no other home than the United States,” he said. “This is one component of immigration reform — any successful reform plan must improve our legal immigration programs, strengthen border security and the interior enforcement of our immigration laws, and find a way to fairly deal with those who are currently in the country unlawfully.”

Aides said there is no timetable for when the proposal would get a committee hearing or vote.

The Judiciary Committee has already approved four immigration bills dealing with interior enforcement, an E-Verify system for employers, high-skilled visas and an agricultural guest-worker program.

Democrats said the move was a welcome sign from Republicans who have been reluctant to provide any legal status to illegal immigrants. But they said it is not enough.

“You’ve got to deal with all aspects of the broken immigration system,” said Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), the House Democratic Caucus chairman who is working on a bipartisan, comprehensive bill. “You can help the kids, but if you leave the parents behind, you still have a very broken system.”

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said the House would move immigration reform on a step-by-step basis rather than with a comprehensive bill. Becerra said the system could not be fixed with “band-aids” or “in pieces.”

“I’m not in the Republican Conference. I’m not the Speaker,” Becerra said. “The Speaker has to determine how he can try to move things forward. I will simply say that we know what it takes to fix the broken immigration system. Pieces don’t fix the machine. You’ve got to fix the machine. You know, man up, do it right, get it done.”

Several lawmakers made compelling cases for approving some version of the DREAM Act during Wednesday’s closed-door House GOP meeting on immigration reform.

“It seemed like a lot more people [thought] that if you were brought here as a child and you graduate valedictorian — how can we be against it?,” one veteran lawmaker told The Hill after the meeting. “A lot of people said that and I was surprised.”

An embrace of any form of the DREAM Act would represent a shift by the GOP, especially because just last month the House voted to kill policies that give officials discretion to not deport illegal immigrants considered low-risk.

Only six Republicans opposed the amendment sponsored by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) and approved by the House in a 224-201 vote.

Republican leaders have consistently voted against the Democrats' DREAM Act over the last several years.

According to one member of the Republican leadership team who spoke to The Hill on the condition of anonymity, it was apparent at Wednesday's lengthy meeting that "there was a growing recognition" the GOP needed to deal with the issue. 

"I think there's growing support to deal with that in immigration — that immigration is changing before our eyes because our kids have grown up with these kids, they're in the families, they're in the neighborhoods, they are graduating with our kids and it's like, what the heck are you going to do with a 18-year-old valedictorian who was brought in when they were one or two?," the lawmaker said.

Cantor's effort is consistent with a post-election speech he delivered at the American Enterprise Institute in February. When it comes to immigration reform, Cantor said at the time, "a good place to start is with the kids."

He added, "One of the great founding principles of our country was that children would not be punished for the mistakes of their parents."

Last year, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) planned to offer the a Republican version of the DREAM Act, but later opted against it.

—This article was updated at 10:35 p.m.