CAMBRIDGE, Md. - House Republican leaders unveiled on Thursday their principles for an overhaul to the nation's immigration laws, which require tighter border security, 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 here 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 also 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. But it does say that those brought to the country as children "would not be punished for the mistakes of their parents" and could eventually become U.S. citizens if they meet 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 members. "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 United States.
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.
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 already-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 can apply for U.S. citizenship. It would take them 13 years and they would have to clear several hurdles, including paying fines, back taxes and maintaining a clean criminal record. But they could then apply for citizenship.
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 about 8 million undocumented immigrants would qualify for green cards and U.S. citizenship. The House approach laid out by Ryan would allow between 4.4 to 6.5 million undocumented 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., told reporters at the retreat that he was receptive to that alternative. "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 anytime," he said, "If we focus on the right policy, the politics will take care of itself."
Democrats have long insisted that they could not negotiate with the House if it presented a plan that forever barred undocumented immigrants from attaining U.S. citizenship. With the new GOP principles at least providing 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 Gutierrez, 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., told reporters that Boehner has informed her of their intent to put out some 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.
However, she said any bill that does not ultimately include a path to citizenship is unlikely to garner much support from Democrats. "We need to have that path."
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