Schumer: House must back citizenship or immigration bill dies

The prospects for immigration reform legislation will be bleak unless the House backs a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, Sen. Charles Schumer warned Tuesday.

The New York Democrat said the piecemeal approach championed by House GOP leaders is a recipe for failure and suggested there will be no House-Senate negotiations unless the Republicans also consider a citizenship pathway alongside their enforcement-focused bills.

"Without a path to citizenship, there is not going to be a bill — there can't be a bill. And to go to conference with various pieces without a path to citizenship … is a path to a cul-de-sac, to no immigration bill," Schumer, a member of the bipartisan group that negotiated the Senate immigration deal, told reporters in the Capitol.

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"The bottom line … is that, without a path to citizenship, they [Republicans] will go to conference and just say, 'Well, take our bill without a path to citizenship,'" he added. "There's got to be a path to citizenship, and I don't think you can get Democrats to vote for things without a path to citizenship. It was our bottom line from the beginning."

With Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) vowing not to consider any immigration bills that lack the majority support of his divided conference — and with a number of House conservatives revolting against any citizenship benefits — some political observers have predicted House GOP leaders would try to pass their security-focused piecemeal approach as a way to move the process along.

But Schumer, who met with the House Democratic Caucus on Tuesday morning, said that strategy simply wouldn't work. The Democrats, he said, are lining up en masse to oppose any House process that excludes the possibility of citizenship.

"The whole theme in that room, almost everything we talked about, was a path to citizenship must be included in the House plan one way or another," he said. "If the bipartisan group has a pathway to citizenship, even if it's different than ours, and maybe more stringent, we can look at that. But without a path to citizenship, I don't see how you get anywhere in the House or in conference."

Rep. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, echoed that message Tuesday. He said party leaders are in "full agreement" with Schumer on the citizenship provision, and warned Republicans would get scant Democratic support without it.

"They're going to have to reach across the aisle," Becerra said. "A bipartisan bill [for] fixing the broken immigration system will include a path to citizenship. Otherwise, we did not fix the problem."

By a healthy 68-32 margin, the Senate last month passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill that includes a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally. But the process has moved much more slowly in the House, where a large group of conservatives opposes the citizenship benefits as amnesty for people they feel should be punished instead for breaking the law.

House Democrats, as the minority party in the lower chamber, say they're ready to accept immigration reforms more conservative than those passed by the Democratically controlled Senate. But they've also warned that — as was the case with the Farm Bill — they won't support just any proposal, even for the sake of getting it to conference.

The Democrats have been vague about what they would deem unacceptable on the House floor, but Tuesday's comments are the clearest indication yet that a piecemeal approach without the option of citizenship would fall into that category.

Asked Tuesday if there is some middle ground that Democrats would accept, a path to permanent residency, say, in lieu of citizenship, Schumer responded with an emphatic, "No."

"America has stood for citizenship. We have a Statue of Liberty here. It never has said, 'You come here, and you'll be second class,'" he said. "We will not stand for it. It will not happen."

Boehner, for the most part, has kept a distance from the immigration fight, offering broad support without making specific policy demands. But on Monday, the Speaker played a few more of his cards when he stipulated that border-security improvements must be in effect — not just in the works — before illegal immigrants would be eligible for provisional legal status.

"It’s real clear, from everything that I’ve seen and read over the last couple of weeks, that the American people expect that we’ll have strong border security in place before we begin the process of legalizing and fixing our legal immigration system,” he told reporters.

Such a trigger would mark a shift from the Senate bill, which sets targets for enhanced border security but does not hinge residency benefits on meeting them.

Schumer said Democrats are ready to look at different triggers but warned that "they can't be used by someone who's against a path to citizenship to block it."