Many key House Republicans would support a pathway to full citizenship under a comprehensive immigration reform plan, according to Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, a Democratic negotiator on immigration and member of the House "Gang of Eight."
Gutiérrez (Ill.) told reporters on Tuesday that he is optimistic about the chances of comprehensive immigration reform passing the House and praised Republican lawmakers for supporting the effort after an election in which the party's presidential nominee Mitt Romney adopted a hawkish stance on the issue.
Members of Congress still must navigate a sea of thorny issues, including whether to grant an earned path to citizenship for many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. Some Republicans have said that giving undocumented people legal status that falls short of full citizenship would be satisfactory, but Gutiérrez said that would be unacceptable to Democratic leaders, including himself.
But he expressed confidence that enough Republicans would back a path to citizenship as part of a final bill, saying that the alternative would create a "permanent underclass" living in the U.S.
"I have spoken with Republicans, including [Reps.] Paul Ryan and Raúl Labrador and Mario Diaz-Balart," Gutiérrez said at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. "They and I understand that we should not legislate a permanent non-citizen underclass. I think they agree with me and many of the leading Republicans also agree."
The congressman also acknowledged ongoing negotiations among a "secret" group of eight House lawmakers, as did House Speaker John Boehner, who said that immigration reform remains a "top priority." Boehner said the House's secret bipartisan immigration group, which continues to meet regularly, is "essentially in agreement over how to proceed" on "a pretty responsible solution."
A source tells ABC News that the House group, which has been keeping a low profile, includes: Democratic Reps. Xavier Becerra (Calif.), Gutiérrez , Zoe Lofgren (Calif.), and John Yarmouth (Ky.) The Republicans are Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart (Fla.), Sam Johnson (Texas), John Carter (Texas), and Labrador (Idaho).
Gutiérrez said he was particularly encouraged by conversations with Ryan, who told him after the election he wanted to work on immigration reform "because it's the right thing to do."
"The only other time I can figure when people were not considered, you know 3/5ths, or you know, is in our original Constitution," Gutiérrez added. He said it's critical that immigrants have "the ability to acquire American citizenship, so you do not create a permanent underclass of individuals that aren't."
But some Republicans, including Labrador, have remained wary of a path to citizenship.
"It would be a travesty in my opinion to treat those who violated our laws to get here much better than those who have patiently waited their turn to come to the United States," Labrador said at the Conservative Political Action Conference last week.
But the process being considered in Congress, according to Gutiérrez, would not offer a "special" pathway. Instead, undocumented immigrants would have to pay a fine and back taxes, learn English and prove that they are law-abiding members of society. After that, qualifying immigrants would go through the same green card and citizenship progress as legal immigrants while remaining in the U.S.