A key House Republican lawmaker is softening his stance against a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, a positive sign for comprehensive immigration reform's chances of passing Congress.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) told reporters in Washington on Wednesday that he won't rule out legislation that would permit undocumented immigrants in the United States to eventually earn citizenship.
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Goodlatte explained that he would allow lawmakers in both parties to come to a "consensus" on how many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. could obtain legal status, and eventually citizenship.
When asked by a reporter at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor if undocumented immigrants would be forever precluded from becoming U.S. citizens under his vision for immigration reform, Goodlatte responded, "No, I don't think that."
"Everybody has a different point of view, and everyone has a different definition, by the way, of what a pathway to citizenship is," he said. "So to me, rather than getting bogged down in the semantics we ought to look at what actually would enable us to find common ground to enable us to pass legislation."
Just last week, Goodlatte said that he did not support allowing undocumented immigrants in the U.S. to earn full citizenship. Should the House follow its regular procedure, an immigration bill would have to pass through Goodlatte's committee. So his comment provoked fears from supporters of comprehensive immigration reform that a bill would have little hope of passing the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
President Barack Obama, Democrats and immigration activists have all demanded that a "real" pathway to citizenship be a part of any bill.
On Wednesday, Goodlatte said he is open to considering a number of ways for people in the country unlawfully to earn legal status and citizenship, though he said none of those paths should be "easy" or "special." For many people who have entered the country illegally, there is virtually no existing path to citizenship.
"Now once you have that status, you can qualify like anyone else," he said. "So having a system where, if you have now a lawful status and then you have another opportunity -- whether it's employment-based or whether it's family-based -- to be able to legalize your status in the future, those are good opportunities."
Goodlatte said he would look at changing the three-year and ten-year re-entry bars for immigrants who are in the country illegally but want to enter the U.S. and seek legal permanent residency, commonly known as obtaining a green card.
"Maybe you have to still go home, but you don't have the bar," he said. "Maybe you adjust here. Look, we shouldn't prejudge all the things, all I'm saying is we ought to find that common ground where we can actually pass something. And that's key."
The Virginia Republican made it clear that other provisions must be a part of a bill, including tough interior enforcement of immigration laws, including mandatory E-Verify for employers to check the immigration status of potential workers and ramped-up border security measures. He also said that legislation should include a legal way for lower-skilled immigrants to work in the U.S. and a clearing of visa backlogs.
"There are millions of people who are not U.S. citizens who are in long lines waiting to avail themselves of those opportunities who have followed the legal process," he said. "So focusing on where we can find that common ground on legal status would be a good step."
Goodlatte also did not rule out a bipartisan plan being drafted in the Senate that includes an earned pathway to citizenship, but requires federal immigration authorities to meet a "trigger" for border security before a pathway could go forward. But he did say he still has "concerns" about various immigration-reform proposals that have been floated in public.
"We would like to see what they produce. We'll then take that and at the same time take the temperature of the members of the committee, the members of the House and see what we can find as a common ground," he said. "I do have concerns about a lot of the different proposals that I've seen. Rather than negotiate those concerns in public, I think it's better to let the process work and see what kind of consensus we can develop."