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GOP Leaders Set to Embrace Legal Status for Immigrants

January 17, 2014
The Wall Street Journal
Laura Meckler

House Republican leaders are preparing for the first time to endorse legal status for many of the 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally, a step that could jump-start the moribund immigration debate.

As early as next week, House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) and other GOP leaders will release a one-page set of principles outlining how they hope to overhaul the immigration system, people familiar with their plans say. It will stop short of offering the sort of path to citizenship endorsed by the Senate, but represents a major step toward what immigration advocates and Democrats have long sought.

The issue has divided Republicans, forcing House leaders to navigate between GOP forces that oppose anything that looks like amnesty, and others who believe it is both unrealistic and politically foolish to expect illegal immigrants to go home.

Mr. Boehner and his team plan to circulate the principles in hopes of building support among rank-and-file lawmakers, according to people familiar with the plans. The speaker aims to release the document publicly ahead of the State of the Union speech on Jan. 28, when President Barack Obama is expected to renew his call for Congress to pass immigration legislation.

Rep. Lee Terry (R., Neb.), one of many Republicans leaders aim to win over, said House leaders' approach might help win GOP support for an overhaul.

"If it doesn't lead to a pathway to citizenship, I think you will get more people to at least embrace that or be OK with that," he said. But he added: "It will still be a very difficult sell."

It is unclear when Republicans plan to translate their ideas into legislation, or when bills will be put on the floor for votes.

The new move comes as immigration advocates and Republican donors alike have grown frustrated over the House's monthslong delay in addressing the issue. After the 2012 election, Republicans including Mr. Boehner said they supported a broad immigration overhaul, partly in hopes of making the party more attractive to the growing number of Hispanic voters. The Senate passed a bipartisan bill in June, but the House has yet to hold a vote.

The new principles will envision a legal process by which illegal immigrants can admit guilt and pay fines and any back taxes, and then gain the right to live and work in the U.S. and travel abroad. It will insist that no legalization provisions take effect until border security and other enforcement measures are in place, people familiar with the draft said.

Unlike under the Senate bill, they will not automatically qualify for citizenship—what detractors call a "special path." But legislation being crafted by Republican lawmakers with the support of House leaders would let newly legalized immigrants apply for legal permanent residence, also known as a green card, using the pathways available to anyone else. Once someone has a green card, he or she is eligible to apply for citizenship.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R., Va.) has voiced support for such an approach for months. He signaled openness to legalization again in an interview that aired on Telemundo on Sunday. He said that if enforcement measures are in place, he sees "no reason" why illegal immigrants couldn't gain legal status.

Many Republicans have long resisted legalization, and many are expected to continue to oppose it, though it isn't clear how many. "Illegal immigration is a crime and ought to be treated that way," Rep. Tom McClintock (R., Calif.) said Thursday.

The emerging GOP approach also presents a challenge to Democrats, who have said anything short of citizenship is an unacceptable second-class status. On Thursday, several were cautiously optimistic.

Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D., Ill.) called the GOP move "a very important moment." He said that citizenship is crucial, but "part of the problem here is that the debate has been framed [as] 'Either it's citizenship for all or it's justice for no one.' " He said that he wasn't endorsing the GOP approach but that it might be preferable to the status quo, where thousands of people are being deported each week.

"Any movement in the House is movement I like," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) told reporters.

An estimate of the new House approach by the National Foundation for American Policy, a conservative research group, concludes that between 4.4 million and 6.5 million of illegal immigrants would qualify for green cards and thus have a chance at citizenship. That compares with 8 million under the Senate bill.

The GOP principles will outline support for other pieces of immigration policy such as increased border security, stepped up employment verification, a temporary worker program for low-skilled workers, more visas for high-technology workers and a path to citizenship for people brought to the U.S. illegally as children, according to two people who have seen a draft.

These measures would be considered as individual pieces of legislation, not as one big bill, though some pieces might be combined—such as enforcement and legalization.

And Republicans involved said the document will restate their resolve not to compromise any legislation they pass by going to a conference with the Senate, which would be the normal process for resolving differences between legislation passed by the two chambers. It was unclear how the House envisions the process moving forward after it moves its own legislation.

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