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House GOP unveils immigration reform plan

House Republican leaders unveiled a package of principles to reform the nation's immigration system on Thursday.
A new U.S. citizen holds an American flag along with her citizenship papers as she participates in a naturalization ceremony at the Chicago Cultural Center on July 3, 2013 in Chicago, Ill.
A new U.S. citizen holds an American flag along with her citizenship papers as she participates in a naturalization ceremony at the Chicago Cultural Center on July 3, 2013 in Chicago, Ill.

CAMBRIDGE, MD -- House Republican leaders support an immigration reform package that would provide legal status for many of the nation’s 11.7 million unauthorized immigrants, offer a pathway to citizenship to undocumented youth, bolster border security, and expand legal immigration, according to a draft framework released on Thursday.

House Speaker John Boehner unveiled the principles to his caucus in a meeting Thursday at their annual retreat in Cambridge, Md.

According to the document, the GOP will seek a solution that allows immigrants to “come forward and get right with the law” if they admit their violations, pay back taxes and fines, and pass a background check. But it will not grant them a “special path to citizenship.” As for young undocumented immigrants -- colloquially known as DREAMers -- who perform military service or receive a college education, “It is time to provide an opportunity for legal residence and citizenship.”

"These standards are as far as we are willing to go," Boehner told his fellow Republicans Thursday, according to a spokesman. "Nancy Pelosi said yesterday that for her caucus, it is a special path to citizenship or nothing. If Democrats insist on that, then we are not going to get anywhere this year."

The “no special path” language leaves them with considerable room to negotiate, since it doesn’t explicitly call for banning immigrants from applying for citizenship through existing channels. Depending on how an eventual law is constructed, an estimated 4.4 million to 6.5 million immigrants might eventually gain citizenship, according to one non-partisan think tank’s estimate -- including 1.5 million DREAMers.

The Senate's bill, which includes a 13-year minimum path to citizenship for most qualifying immigrants, would result in about 8 million people gaining citizenship, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

Several Democratic lawmakers responded positively to the GOP's announcement.

“We are now talking about how people stay and how they come legally, not how we kick out 11 million people and build a big moat around the country,” Illinois Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a leading advocate for reform, said in a statement. Sounding a hopeful note, he added that it was “a first step” and “bodes well for the future.”

New York Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer, who co-sponsored the Senate bill, which passed last summer, also saw the possibility of a compromise.

“It is a long, hard road but the door is open," he said in a statement.

Notably, the proposed principles leave out at least one policy that immigration reform groups were worried would be included as non-negotiable: a direct call for a law that allows states like Arizona and Alabama to enact their own immigration crackdowns. But the proposal does include, in its section on legalization, a caveat that “none of this can happen before specific enforcement triggers have been implemented to fulfill our promise to the American people that from here on, our immigration laws will indeed be enforced.”

Immigration reform advocates have expressed serious concern about any bill that doesn’t immediately block deportations and move immigrants toward legal status, and it’s likely to be a major point of contention in negotiations. But House GOP leaders are giving themselves some flexibility in negotiations by not including a strict definition as to how the trigger would work.

“There is a lot of wiggle room in the language,” David Leopold, former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told msnbc.

While he was concerned about the lack of detail on citizenship and security requirements, Leopold also noted that the principles largely mirrored the Senate’s bipartisan bill. They include a requirement for businesses to verify new hires against an electronic database to check their legal status, a build up of border security, a new system to track visitors to the country on temporary visas, and a new legal immigration system to attract more high-skilled workers and create a legal means for agriculture and low-skilled workers to take jobs in the United States.

For the most part, immigration reform supporters sounded cautiously optimistic, but impatient to see actual bills and votes.

“It’s hard to overstate the importance of GOP leadership crafting a path forward,” Ali Noorani, executive director of the National immigration Forum, said on twitter.

Tamar Jacoby, president of the business-oriented reform group ImmigrationWorks USA, called the principles a “historic breakthrough” and a “game changer.”

Frank Sharry, president of America's Voice, said he was "encouraged" by the draft, but added that "it’s time for them to translate these vague principles into a legislative proposal." 

A major exception was AFL-CIO leader Richard Trumka, who called the principles “a flimsy document that only serves to underscore the callous attitude Republicans have toward our nation’s immigrants." Labor leaders have expressed particular concern about the GOP’s lack of commitment to a clear path to citizenship in recent days. PICO National Network, a faith based pro-reform advocate, also decried the draft's citizenship language.  

Now comes the hard part -- selling it to conservative members of the House.

While the question of whether to grant undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship has dominated the immigration debate, for reform skeptics, the bigger issue is whether to grant them any legal recognition at all instead of just deporting them.

Missouri Republican Rep. Jason Smith told reporters that his constituents rarely distinguished between citizenship and legal status in criticizing reform.

“Legalization, period, is a serious issue in our district,” Smith said. “I think they’re the same thing.”

Even as Republicans move closer toward the Democrats’ position on immigration, some are keeping one foot in the emergency exit door. A number of members say they’re interested in reform -- even legalization -- but fear that Obama’s decisions to defer deportations for young undocumented immigrants and grant Obamacare waivers to businesses this year has made it difficult to trust him on border security.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who has steadily distanced himself from immigration after co-sponsoring the Senate’s bill, suggested on Wednesday that reform might have to wait until after Obama leaves office.