US & Canada

House Republican leaders outline immigration principles

Speaker of the House John Boehner speaks during the House Republican Leadership press conference at the House Republican Issues Conference in Cambridge, 30 January 2014 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The House Republican proposal, though backed by Speaker John Boehner, still faces significant opposition from Republican backbenchers

Republican leaders in the US House of Representatives have circulated a list of immigration reform proposals, opening a contentious debate within the party and with the Democrat-led Senate.

They back citizenship for illegal immigrants who arrived as children, and lesser legal status for other groups.

The document does not appear to go as far as a bill passed by the Senate.

It is seen as a recognition by Republican leaders they must do more to win over Hispanic voters.

The document, released during a House Republican retreat on Thursday, was greeted sceptically by conservative Republicans in the House rank-and-file and the Senate and by Democrats and liberals who demand an easier path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Outreach to Hispanics

The one-page document is a shift from previous Republican positions on immigration, notably in that it backs ways for some of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the US to gain some sort of legal status.

Analysts say it represents the start of the party's effort to win support from Hispanic voters, a fast-growing voting bloc that in recent years has overwhelmingly backed the Democrats.

The document, described in Washington DC as a statement of principles, backs a mechanism for "people who are living and working here illegally to come forward and get right with the law", but without a "special path to citizenship".

Analysts say that vague statement would set the Republicans against the Democratic-backed Senate bill, which would create a way for undocumented immigrants to pay fines and eventually gain citizenship.

"Rather, these persons could live legally and without fear in the U.S., but only if they were willing to admit their culpability, pass rigorous background checks, pay significant fines and back taxes, develop proficiency in English and American civics, and be able to support themselves and their families," the statement says.

They would not have access to "public benefits".

Children brought to the US illegally would be able to apply for citizenship after finishing university or serving in the US military.

Republicans also insist on stricter border enforcement and reinforced controls before any immigrant can move towards legalisation.

The outline also includes "a zero tolerance policy" for those who cross the border illegally or overstay their visas in the future.

Among other measures, the party would allocate more visas to workers in high skilled fields.

Although it merely opened what is expected to be a long round of negotiations with the Senate, House Speaker John Boehner said the document represented as far as the party was willing to go on immigration.

'Half-measures' rejected

The bill passed by the Senate in June would create a path to citizenship for many more immigrants, a start-up visa for foreign entrepreneurs, and new visa programmes for low-skilled workers and the agricultural sector.

"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," Senator Chuck Schumer, who helped draft the Senate bill, said of the Republican statement.

Other advocates were not impressed by the Republican shift.

Richard Trumka, president of AFL-CIO, America's largest labour union, called it "a flimsy document that only serves to underscore the callous attitude Republicans have toward our nation's immigrants".

"Half-measures that would create a permanent class of non-citizens without access to green cards should be condemned, not applauded," he said in a statement.

And not all Republicans were supportive of the guidelines.

Senator Jeff Sessions has urged Congress to "end lawlessness, not surrender to it".

And Congressman Jason Smith of Missouri said his constituents "definitely have big concerns about legalisation".

Others in the party are wary of taking up immigration at all during a mid-term election year, when all House members and one-third of the Senate are up for re-election.

"This is really a suicide mission for the Republican Party," Louisiana Representative John Fleming said. "While we're winning in the polls... why in the world do we want to go out and change the subject."

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