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House GOP unveils immigration ‘principles’

Speaker of the House John Boehner, right, speaks during the House Republican Leadership news conference in Cambridge, Md., on Jan. 30. With him are Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash.(Photo: Jim Watson, AFP/Getty Images)

CAMBRIDGE, Md. — House Republican leaders unveiled on Thursday their principles for an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws. Their plan would require tighter border security and more interior immigration enforcement and allow the nation’s undocumented immigrants to “get right with the law” and stay in the country.

The principles, distributed to Republicans gathered for a three-day annual retreat, say undocumented immigrants can legally live and work in the country if they register with the federal government and are “willing to admit their culpability.” They must pass a “rigorous” criminal background check, pay “significant” fines and back taxes, learn English and civics and prove they can support themselves without government assistance.

The principles do not make clear whether most undocumented immigrants would ever be able to apply for green cards or become U.S. citizens. Those brought to the country as children “would not be punished for the mistakes of their parents” and could become U.S. citizens if they met certain criteria.

“This problem’s been around for at least the last 15 years. It’s been turned into a political football, I think it’s unfair. So I think it’s time to deal with it,” House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Thursday before huddling with his colleagues. “But how we deal with it is critically important.”

Boehner has been up front that Republicans continue to favor a step-by-step approach vs. one comprehensive piece of legislation akin to what the Democratic-controlled Senate approved last year. The Senate bill includes a pathway to citizenship for the 12 million undocumented immigrants in the USA.

Senate Democrats were encouraged by what they saw in the one-page set of principles.

“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. It is a long, hard road, but the door is open,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., in a statement.

EX-GOP SPEAKER: Give undocumented immigrants legal status

The most contentious issue among Republicans is how to address the status of undocumented immigrants.

On the eve of Thursday’s GOP retreat, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., laid out how undocumented immigrants could reach citizenship.

Ryan told MSNBC that undocumented immigrants could immediately qualify for a “probationary status” and that the government would then have an undetermined amount of time to reach certain security benchmarks, including stronger border security and enhanced interior immigration enforcement.

If those benchmarks are met, then the undocumented immigrants could qualify for a more permanent legal work permit, allowing them to live and work in the country without fear of deportation.

At that point, only those who can qualify for existing channels of legal immigration – meaning they’re related to a U.S. citizen or are sponsored for a green card by their employer – could get on the road to citizenship, he said.

Under the Senate plan, the vast majority of the nation’s undocumented immigrants could apply for U.S. citizenship. It would take them 13 years, and they would have to clear several hurdles, including paying fines and back taxes and maintaining a clean criminal record.

Ryan criticized the Senate proposal as a “special pathway to citizenship” that is unfair to people around the world who have been waiting years to apply and legally enter the USA.

“If you want to get in line to get a green card like any other immigrant, you can do that,” Ryan said. “You just have to get at the back of the line so that we preference that legal immigrant who did things right in the first place.”

The two approaches would have a big effect on who could qualify for citizenship. ACongressional Budget Office analysis of the Senate plan estimated that 8 million undocumented immigrants would qualify for green cards and U.S. citizenship. The House approach laid out by Ryan would allow 4.4 million to 6.5 million undocumented immigrants to reach that status, according to a report from the National Foundation for American Policy, an Arlington, Va.-based think-tank.

Rep. Marlin Stutzman, R-Ind., said at the retreat that he was receptive to the House plan. “I think we as Republicans can find a path to legal status that does not include citizenship,” he said, dismissing political concerns that taking on immigration could divide the GOP and spark primary challenges in an election year.

“I’m not afraid to deal with anything at any time,” he said, “If we focus on the right policy, the politics will take care of itself.”

Supporters of an overhaul of immigration laws said they were encouraged to see House Republicans get involved in the immigration debate. It’s been more than a year since the Senate began working on its bill and seven months since it passed.

“This is the first time House leadership has said, ‘This is where we’re going,’ ” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a group that supported the Senate immigration bill. “You cannot overstate House leadership laying out principles for immigration reform that are thoughtful and pragmatic.”

Others were upset over the lack of certainty undocumented immigrants would face under the House plan.

“Half-measures that would create a permanent class of non-citizens without access to green cards should be condemned, not applauded,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who supported the Senate plan. “Until we create a functioning immigration system with a pathway to citizenship, ruthless employers will continue to exploit low wage workers, pulling down wages for all.”

For conservatives opposed to granting “amnesty” to undocumented immigrants, Thursday’s announcement was a serious blow.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., fought hard against the Senate immigration bill and said the House proposal commits the same fatal flaw: It would grant legal status to undocumented immigrants before ensuring security measures.

Democrats have long insisted they could not negotiate with the House if it presented a plan that forever barred undocumented immigrants from attaining U.S. citizenship. Since the new GOP principles at least provide access to citizenship for many undocumented immigrants, Democrats said it was something they could work with.

“Nobody that I hear from in Congress is talking about immediate citizenship for everyone or mass deportation for everyone,” said Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, D-Ill., who has led immigration efforts for Democrats for years. “We can find common ground that allows millions of the undocumented to eventually apply for citizenship, legalizes millions who are working and contributing to the country, and puts our economy, our security and the legality of America’s workforce on solid ground.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Boehner informed her of his intent to put out guiding principles.

“We’ll see what it is, but I believe it is a good-faith effort to find common ground. And we look forward to seeing what they are,” Pelosi said.

She said any bill that does not include a path to citizenship is unlikely to garner much support from Democrats. “We need to have that path.”

Source: Susan Davis and Alan Gomez, USA TODAY

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