WASHINGTON — Influential House Republicans, adopting a distinctly more conciliatory approach to immigration reform since the November election, are seriously considering ways to give legal status to illegal immigrants.
The push by President Obama and a high-profile group of senators to create a pathway to citizenship has met stiff resistance from conservatives in the GOP-led House. And their intense opposition could undermine efforts to find a compromise that can pass the House. But party leaders have encouraged a secretive bipartisan group to work on a deal and have spoken openly about their support for reform.
House Speaker John A. Boehner acknowledged Tuesday that allowing immigrants who came illegally to become citizens was “a very difficult part of any of these bills.” But the Ohio Republican also said, “I want to just encourage members on both sides of the Capitol and both parties to continue to try to come to some resolution of that issue.”
And in a stark reversal, the No. 2 Republican in the House, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, announced that he favored a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants brought to this country as children. When the Dream Act, which would have set up that process, came to a vote in the House in 2010, Cantor was one of 198 Republicans to vote against the measure.
“A good place to start is with the kids,” Cantor said. “One of the great founding principles of our country was that children would not be punished for the mistakes of their parents.”
In the aftermath of an election in which Latino voters overwhelmingly spurned the Republican Party and its presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, who encouraged illegal immigrants to “self-deport,” GOP leaders in the House have worked to adopt a more moderate tone and even passed over an outspoken reform opponent for a subcommittee chairmanship.
On Tuesday, the first congressional hearing on immigration in the House was characterized by unusually cordial opening remarks from members on both sides of the aisle.
“I’ve seen a change in tone from both parties,” Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) said. “On the Republican side, it’s: ‘Let’s try to see if we can come up with a solution.’ On the Democrats side, it’s: ‘Let’s get this done, as opposed to, use this as a battering ram.’”
Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), a vocal advocate for citizenship for illegal immigrants, said: “People were nice to one another. There wasn’t the talk about why don’t we just electrify fences.”
Diaz-Balart and Gutierrez would not say they are part of the House group working on legislation, but congressional aides confirmed their involvement, along with that of Republicans John Carter and Sam Johnson of Texas, and Democrats Zoe Lofgren of San Jose and Xavier Becerra of Los Angeles.
The House group has already drafted large sections of a bill. Like the framework announced by senators last week, the House draft contains border security and enforcement milestones that must be met before most of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country would be allowed to apply for legal status.
A crucial detail yet to be worked out is exactly how illegal immigrants who have been granted legal status would be allowed to apply for permanent residence — a green card — and, later, citizenship.
“We’re so close,” said a lawmaker who is familiar with the House negotiations. “No one has walked away yet. A decision has to be made on both sides: Are we willing to walk away from all that we’ve gotten done? Am I willing to walk away from it because I don’t get exactly what I want?”
The six senators who are drafting a bill have accelerated their work in the days since they unveiled their blueprint. They met Monday and planned to meet again Wednesday.
During the immigration hearing Tuesday, Republican committee members asked whether legal status for illegal immigrants could stop short of citizenship. Many lawmakers said they were haunted by the 1986 law, which legalized 3 million illegal immigrants but was unable to close the door on unlawful entries.
“Are we serious about making this the last, last time we have this conversation?” said Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), the head of the immigration subcommittee in the House. “Or are we simply playing political games and undercutting the respect for rule of law, which is, ironically, the reason they come to this country in the first place? We shall see.”
Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), who was born in Puerto Rico and raised by his mother in Nevada, said a major question facing the success of a bill in the House would be whether advocates for immigration reform were willing to settle for less than a pathway to citizenship.
“I think there’s goodwill here in the House of Representatives for us to come together, actually have a pragmatic solution to this current problem,” he said.
Obama has said that a clear road to citizenship is necessary for lasting immigration reform. In a meeting with labor leaders and immigration advocacy groups Tuesday in the West Wing’s Roosevelt Room, Obama said he hoped to see the Senate group finish a bill by March, according to participants.
Eliseo Medina, the secretary-treasurer of Service Employees International Union, which represents numerous Latino workers, said, “For the Latino community, if there is not a path to citizenship, there is not a solution and this battle will continue to go on.”