House Majority Leader Eric Cantor attempted to project a softer Republican tone on immigration during a speech at the American Enterprise Institute on Tuesday, but indicated there is a ways to go until Republicans and Democrats agree on an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws.
Cantor, the second-ranking House Republican, endorsed a path to citizenship for DREAMers, the undocumented young people brought to the United States as children. House Republicans helped sink the DREAM Act, which would have granted a path to citizenship to DREAMers seeking a college education or military service, in 2010.
"A good place to start is with the kids," Cantor said. "One of the great founding principles of our country was that children would not be punished for the mistakes of their parents. 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."
He also voiced support for a guest-worker program, increased border security, and an employment verification system as a part of a broader immigration reform effort. Those ideas are all components of the immigration reform framework outlined by the Senate "Gang of Eight."
But Cantor refused to take a position on the bipartisan group's plan, saying he's not familiar with the specifics of that framework.
"I've not looked at the details of what the Senate put out," he said.
Cantor did praise Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the Senate group, and said he believes Congress can work toward a solution to the immigration problem "in quick fashion."
He also called on President Obama to lead on immigration reform.
"There are some who would rather avoid fixing the problem in order to save this as a political issue," Cantor said. "I reject this notion and call on the president to help lead us towards a bipartisan solution rather than encourage the common political divisions of the past."
Obama voiced his support last week in Las Vegas for the Senate framework, and the White House released a set of principles that endorsed the idea of a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country and called for protections for same-sex couples.
Democrats have called on Congress to put many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country on a path to citizenship, but some Republicans have decried the idea as "amnesty."
In addition to addressing the need to provide relief to DREAMers, Cantor also spoke at length about the need for more science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) workers. He called on Congress to pass legislation that would allow foreign students educated in the United States in STEM fields to stay in the country.
"Each year our colleges and universities graduate approximately 40,000 foreign nationals with Masters and PhD degrees, many of whom are then forced to leave the country because there are not enough visa slots in our immigration system to permit them to stay," he said. "So rather than being able to invent things here in America, grow businesses or start one of their own, they do all of these things somewhere else."
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have voiced support for increasing the number of visas for STEM workers and for allowing students educated in the United States to stay. But they don't agree on how to go about putting the idea into practice.
Many Republican lawmakers, including Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), have called for a series of immigration bills aimed at addressing specific issues.
"While we are a nation that allows anyone to start anew, we are also a nation of laws, and that's what makes tackling the issue of immigration reform so difficult," Cantor said. "In looking to solve this problem soon, we've got to balance respect for the rule of law and respect for those waiting to enter this country legally, with care for the people and families, most of whom just want to make a better life, and contribute to America."
Cantor avoided adopting any of the harsh rhetoric that some voters have criticized Republicans for using, terms like "illegal aliens" and "amnesty."
"It's no secret that there are more than 11 million people here illegally, many of whom have become part of the fabric of our country," he said. "They, like us, have families and dreams."