CAMBRIDGE, Md. - House Speaker John Boehner presented a set of principles to Republican lawmakers today that would offer undocumented immigrants a pathway to legalization, but not citizenship, as he opened a new discussion to keep alive the debate over immigration reform.
At a retreat for Republican lawmakers here on Maryland's Eastern Shore, immigration was a central point of discussion as Boehner and other GOP leaders unveiled a highly-anticipated list of standards to kick off debate on the controversial immigration legislation.
"I think it's time to deal with it," Boehner said, speaking to reporters at the opening of a two-day policy retreat here. "But how we deal with it is going to be critically important."
The Republican proposal suggests undocumented immigrants would be allowed to live in the United States "legally and without fear," but would not gain a path to citizenship, which is a hallmark of the Senate plan passed last year.
"These persons could live legally and without fear in the U.S.," according to the document obtained by ABC News, "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 immigration principles were presented to get feedback from Republican lawmakers. The standards have not yet been adopted by House Republicans, but rather are a set of principles being debated inside the conference.
Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, a top Democratic leader in the Senate, said today that it was the beginning of a potential breakthrough on immigration reform. His statement was designed to send an early signal to other Democrats to allow Boehner and other Republicans to work on the bill without criticism.
"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," Schumer said. "It is a long, hard road but the door is open."
A central theme of the House plan is increasing border security, which is intended to avoid suggestions that the proposal can be described by critics as amnesty.
There is still deep disagreement from rank-and-file Republicans about whether this bill should even be taken up this year. Republican leaders are pushing it, but it is very much at the beginning, rather than the end of the road.
Earlier today, Boehner acknowledged that it's time to deal with immigration reform, an issue that he says has been unfairly turned into a "political football."
While Boehner and other Republican leaders expressed confidence they could build support for this controversial issue, he said it was also essential to build momentum outside Congress. Boehner also said the proposals are a search for what he called a "common-sense" solution.
Strong opposition remains among many Republicans to giving illegal immigrants a route to citizenship, rather than legal status to work in the U.S.
"It's one thing to a pass a law," Boehner said. "It's another thing to have the confidence of the American people behind that law as you're passing it."
Here is the full text of the draft document, as presented by Boehner:
Standards for Immigration Reform
PREAMBLE Our nation's immigration system is broken and our laws are not being enforced. Washington's failure to fix them is hurting our economy and jeopardizing our national security. The overriding purpose of our immigration system is to promote and further America's national interests and that is not the case today. The serious problems in our immigration system must be solved, and we are committed to working in a bipartisan manner to solve them. But they cannot be solved with a single, massive piece of legislation that few have read and even fewer understand, and therefore, we will not go to a conference with the Senate's immigration bill. The problems in our immigration system must be solved through a step-by-step, common-sense approach that starts with securing our country's borders, enforcing our laws, and implementing robust enforcement measures. These are the principals guiding us in that effort.
Border Security and Interior Enforcement Must Come First It is the fundamental duty of any government to secure its borders, and the United States is failing in this mission. We must secure our borders now and verify that they are secure. In addition, we must ensure now that when immigration reform is enacted, there will be a zero tolerance policy for those who cross the border illegally or overstay their visas in the future. Faced with a consistent pattern of administrations of both parties only selectively enforcing our nation's immigration laws, we must enact reform that ensures that a President cannot unilaterally stop immigration enforcement.
Implement Entry-Exit Visa Tracking System A fully functioning Entry-Exit system has been mandated by eight separate statutes over the last 17 years. At least three of these laws call for this system to be biometric, using technology to verify identity and prevent fraud. We must implement this system so we can identify and track down visitors who abuse our laws.
Employment Verification and Workplace Enforcement In the 21st century it is unacceptable that the majority of employees have their work eligibility verified through a paper based system wrought with fraud. It is past time for this country to fully implement a workable electronic employment verification system.
Reforms to the Legal Immigration System For far too long, the United States has emphasized extended family members and pure luck over employment-based immigration. This is inconsistent with nearly every other developed country. Every year thousands of foreign nationals pursue degrees at America's colleges and universities, particularly in high skilled fields. Many of them want to use their expertise in U.S. industries that will spur economic growth and create jobs for Americans. When visas aren't available, we end up exporting this labor and ingenuity to other countries. Visa and green card allocations need to reflect the needs of employers and the desire for these exceptional individuals to help grow our economy.
The goal of any temporary worker program should be to address the economic needs of the country and to strengthen our national security by allowing for realistic, enforceable, usable, legal paths for entry into the United States. Of particular concern are the needs of the agricultural industry, among others. It is imperative that these temporary workers are able to meet the economic needs of the country and do not displace or disadvantage American workers.
Youth 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 through no fault of their own, those who know no other place as home. For those who meet certain eligibility standards, and serve honorably in our military or attain a college degree, we will do just that.
Individuals Living Outside the Rule of Law Our national and economic security depend on requiring people who are living and working here illegally to come forward and get right with the law. There will be no special path to citizenship for individuals who broke our nation's immigration laws - that would be unfair to those immigrants who have played by the rules and harmful to promoting the rule of law. 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 (without access to public benefits). Criminal aliens, gang members, and sex offenders and those who do not meet the above requirements will not be eligible for this program. Finally, 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.