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House Immigration Hearing Shows Little GOP Movement on Citizenship

House Republicans cast doubt on efforts to pass a comprehensive immigration overhaul Tuesday and indicated that Congress should look for a middle ground that would legalize the status of illegal immigrants but stop short of granting them citizenship.

At the first hearing of this Congress on the issue, Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee made clear their position on immigration policy has not changed substantially. While they support granting more visas to high-tech foreign workers, they would hesitate to grant citizenship to people who have broken the law in moving to the country.

Their statements hint at the hurdles to come in Capitol Hill’s immigration debate. Bipartisan groups in the House and the Senate are working toward separate comprehensive bills that they hope to unveil in the weeks ahead. The Senate group, which includes four Republicans, has already publicly endorsed granting a path to citizenship to the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States.

Democrats in both chambers have long insisted that any immigration bill should include citizenship to win their support. But Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., the new Judiciary Committee chairman, called granting citizenship to undocumented immigrants an “extreme option” at Tuesday’s hearing.

Calling it “the question of the day,” Goodlatte asked: “Are there options that we should consider between the extremes of mass deportation and a pathway to citizenship for those not lawfully present in the United States?”

San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, one of the panel witnesses and a rapidly-rising star in Democratic circles, responded: “A pathway to citizenship should be the option the country selects. I don’t see that as an extreme option.”

Other Republicans brought up similar points again and again. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., the immigration subcommittee’s new chairman, suggested that granting citizenship to people who have moved to the country illegally would be a tough sell.

“What we cannot become is a country where the laws apply to some of the people some of the time,” he said, taking a swing at the Obama administration’s policy of not deporting young people brought to the country illegally as children.

That position could put House Republicans at odds with their Senate counterparts, some of whom have gotten behind citizenship. It could also put them at odds with their own Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, R-Va. As the hearing was under way Tuesday, Cantor was addressing the American Enterprise Institute, where he said he would support citizenship for young people brought to the country illegally as children.

That measure, known in Congress as the DREAM Act, has been a hot topic of immigration policy. Republicans have opposed the proposal in recent years but Cantor’s endorsement could move some of his colleagues.

“One of the great founding principles of our country was that children should not be punished for the mistakes of their parents,” Cantor said. “It is time to provide an opportunity for legal residence and citizenship for those who were brought to this country as children and who know no other home.”

House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, also praised the bipartisan efforts Tuesday but refused to endorse the Senate’s proposals. He struck a cautious note, saying he is in no hurry to put an immigration bill on the floor.

“This is not about being in a hurry, this about trying to get it right on behalf of the American people and those who are suffering under an immigration system that doesn’t work very well for anybody,” Boehner said.

Committee Democrats said that they are not considering a blanket amnesty, but rather a lengthy process that would involve illegal immigrants paying back taxes and fees. A set of guiding principles released by the Senate working group last week emphasized that undocumented people would only get citizenship once the border is secure, a provision meant to appease Republican objections.

“What we’re saying is over some period of time that’s arduous, you might gain legal permanent residence in the United States and then if you pay thousands of dollars, learn everything there is to know about the American government, learn English so well you can pass the test and then swear you can defend the Constitution and be willing to fight for your country, only in that case could you become an American citizen,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., the ranking member on the immigration subcommittee.

President Barack Obama met with business and immigrant advocacy groups Tuesday and repeated his commitment that any immigration overhaul should include a route to citizenship for undocumented people.

Republicans at Tuesday’s hearing also said that Congress should tackle an immigration overhaul in pieces, rather than putting a comprehensive, contentious bill on the floor. Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Ala., said the first piece of that incremental legislating should grant more permanent residency visas to high-tech foreign workers whose skills are in demand by American employers. That would prevent an argument over the “toxic” question of citizenship from killing other changes to immigration laws, he said.

“Let’s not let the more contentious issue and this idea of comprehensive reform prevent us from this year, this month, passing something to address what is a horrible situation in this country,” Bachus said. “We’re training people to go back to their country and compete against us.”

Rep. John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., the full committee’s ranking member, insisted that any immigration overhaul should be comprehensive and grant citizenship while also strengthening the border.

“The notion of comprehensive immigration [legislation] has been pushed around and bandied about, but the fact of the matter is that this is one big challenge that I don’t think we can handle on a piecemeal basis,” Conyers said. “My experience with this subject tells me that with 10 or 11 million undocumented people living among us, we’ve got to approach this in terms of a more holistic way.”

Gowdy and Goodlatte also said Congress should not repeat what they see as the mistakes of the 1986 immigration law, the last major overhaul to be enacted. While that law granted amnesty to undocumented people, they said it did not deliver the tougher border security and employer sanction measures it promised.

“Are we serious about border security and employment certification?” Gowdy asked. “Are we serious about making this the last time we have this conversation, or are we simply playing political games with people’s lives and undercutting the rule of law, which ironically is the very reason they come to this country in the first place? We shall see.”

Daniel Newhauser contributed to this report.

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