Working in secret, House has its own bipartisan immigration plan

Franco Ordonez

A bipartisan group of members of the House of Representatives is close to introducing its own immigration bill, which would grant legal status to many of the nation’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants but _ in a significant departure from similar proposals in the White House and Senate _ isn’t expected to include new paths to citizenship, according to those involved in the discussions.

The House proposal likely will stoke the already volatile debate on immigration as many Democrats – including President Barack Obama – immigrants’ advocates and union leaders have staked their ground on a path to citizenship being essential to any compromise.

Under the anticipated House proposal, no one would be barred permanently from citizenship, but they’d be eligible only via pathways that already are available to any other immigrants, including marriage, family or employment-based sponsorships.

“I will argue until my last breath for a pathway to citizenship that is quick and efficient because I want to end this chapter. I want to end it,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat who’s among the House’s most outspoken advocates for immigrants. The goal, he said, is to have no permanent underclass.

“But let me say, conversely, I am as committed as any Republican to ending illegal immigration as we know it,” he added. “They want to end it. So do I.”

Neither Gutierrez nor any other member of the bipartisan group would confirm his or her involvement in the House team. But those aware of the discussion say he’s among a group of four Democrats and four Republicans, some of whom have been meeting secretly for years, who are working to craft a bipartisan immigration plan that they think could pass the more conservative chamber of Congress.

Other members include Republicans Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, Raul Labrador of Idaho, John Carter and Sam Johnson, both of Texas, and Democrats John Yarmuth of Kentucky, Xavier Becerra and Zoe Lofgren, both of California.

Their proposed legislation, like the White House and Senate proposals, would beef up border security, establish a nationwide system to verify the legal status of workers, punish businesses that hire illegal immigrants and allow more agricultural and highly skilled immigrant workers to stay in the country.

Members of the House bipartisan team hope to release the bill within three weeks, possibly before the Senate legislation, which is scheduled to be delivered at the end of the month, according to officials familiar with the team’s proposal.

Working in secret has been a necessity, considering the high stakes. The Republican-led House is seen as the greatest obstacle to a comprehensive overhaul. Many conservative House members continue to liken a path to citizenship to “amnesty,” and they find it an affront to the principles of the rule of law.

On the other side of the issue, many advocates responded in outrage last month after the Senate bipartisan team introduced its own proposal, which would offer a path to citizenship only after an independent assessment determined that the nation’s borders were secure.

Several immigrant rights groups, including the National Council of La Raza and the National Immigration Law Center, urged Obama to reject that aspect of the Senate proposal, which would more than likely be seen as more sympathetic than the House version.

Under the House plan, many immigrants brought to the country as children, agricultural workers and highly skilled immigrants would likely be granted permanent residency. Then presumably they could apply for citizenship within a handful of years, as under the current system. How many years is unclear.

Many conservative Republicans also are likely to be dissatisfied with the House proposal.

Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa still hasn’t gotten over the so-called 1986 amnesty bill signed by Republican President Ronald Reagan. It legalized 3 million undocumented immigrants and failed to prevent a wave of millions more from rushing into the country.

“The promise then was law enforcement in exchange for amnesty,” King said Wednesday during a Capital Hill discussion on immigration among conservative Republicans. “We have the same dialogue going on now that we had in 2006 and 2007. And I’m sitting here a bit astonished that we’re seriously considering that our president is going to help us enforce immigration law.”

At the same meeting, Labrador said any new pathway to citizenship was “off the table.”

He told McClatchy afterward that Democrats needed to come to the right “a little bit.”

“I think if they continue to insist on it, then it could potentially blow up the entire immigration reform package,” he said.

The bipartisan House group has been meeting for months behind the scenes to craft principles before working on the details of more specific legislation.

The core members started talking in 2009, then essentially went into hibernation a year later as the vitriol over immigration reached its peak. They began meeting again after last fall’s elections, picking up new members such as Labrador

For Diaz-Balart, the work has been a family affair as he followed in the footsteps of his brother, former Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., in pushing the issue in the face of strong Republican Party opposition.

“I’m absolutely sure that we have the ability and the willingness to get this done,” he said this week.

The House leadership has issued its support for getting an agreement. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has applauded the work of House members and said Congress must deal with immigration this year.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said last week that he hoped Congress could follow labor and business – which has agreed on a set of principals for immigrant workers – in putting politics aside to find common ground on the immigration front.

“Let’s hope we can follow that lead in the months ahead,” he said in a statement.

By Franco Ordonez
McClatchy Newspapers