House group accelerates work on immigration bill

WASHINGTON – A secretive group of House members from both parties is racing to complete an immigration bill in the next two weeks with an eye toward introducing legislation before President Obama’s State of the Union address on Feb. 12, said two congressional aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the negotiations.

The draft bill, written behind closed doors by three Democrats and three Republicans, so far includes a path to legal status, new border security measures and tighter restrictions on employers. It tracks closely with the blueprint laid out by the bipartisan group of senators on Tuesday, said the aides.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) said in a statement that the senators’ principles “are compatible with discussions in the House.” Diaz-Balart would not give details about those discussions and would not explicitly confirm he is a member of the group.

Congressional aides confirmed that along with Diaz-Balart, Republicans John Carter and Sam Johnson, both of Texas, are part of the group, with Democrats Luis V. Gutierrez of Illinois, Zoe Lofgren of San Jose, and the chairman of the House Democratic caucus, Xavier Becerra of Los Angeles.

Gutierrez said in a statement that he has been a part of “very constructive conversations with my House colleagues in both parties,” adding that he is confident that “we are poised for action and not just more talk on immigration reform.” He would not confirm that he is part of the group.

The group has been meeting regularly since the November elections and has taken up drafts of a bill that were hammered out by some of the same members during a secret House effort in 2009 and 2010. The earlier push, which was done in consultation with technical experts from Cabinet offices, was scuttled by a rancorous atmosphere in Congress in 2010, said aides.

While there is no guarantee that the bill will be completed in the next two weeks, the House group may be closer to introducing a bill than the Senate effort. Schedulers are setting up a meeting on Capitol Hill for the members when the House comes back into session on Monday. Other Republican House members have expressed interest in joining the discussions, said the aides.

The effort has moved forward with the blessing of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). Boehner has not made promises to the members that he would back the bill, just that he wouldn’t stand in the way of it being introduced, said a Hill aide.

Like the senators’ framework announced Tuesday, the draft of the House bill allows most of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country to apply for probationary legal status and contains border security and enforcement milestones that immigrants must meet before they can become lawful permanent residents. Unlike the Senate proposal, the House version does not set up a commission to certify that the border is secure.

One detail that has not been worked out yet between the House members is exactly how illegal immigrants who have been granted legal status will be allowed to apply for lawful permanent residence – a green card – and later, to apply for full citizenship.

“The most important thing right now is to keep the various efforts moving forward and not to draw lines in the sand,” Gutierrez said in his statement. “Every proposal can be amended at some point.”

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