Feb. 5, 2013 -- The House of Representatives on Tuesday will take its first concrete steps this year toward addressing comprehensive immigration reform, an issue that has traditionally failed to gain traction in the lower chamber.
Momentum toward overhauling the nation's immigration laws is at its highest in years, with President Barack Obama and a group of bipartisan senators unveiling their plans last week. Both contain a path to citizenship for many of the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Those types of proposals are expected to face an upward climb in the Republican-controlled House. GOP lawmakers have staunchly opposed a path to citizenship for years, dismissing it as "amnesty." But there are also signs that the mood has shifted on immigration. Many Republican leaders have called on their members to shift their tone on the issue after the November election, in which the GOP failed to attract enough Latino and immigrant voters to win at the presidential level.
The House Judiciary Committee will hold its first hearing on immigration reform on Tuesday morning. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the chairman of the judiciary panel and a long-time opponent of a path to citizenship, has said he is open to considering a wide range of proposals to reshape the immigration system, including the president's and the Senate's, but he's wary of plans that contain a broad path to citizenship.
"When [Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid] says there has to be a path to citizenship, I wonder whether he's serious about doing immigration reform," Goodlatte told USA Today on Monday. "You have to come at this with a willingness to look at all the options and find the common ground."
Goodlatte, however, said that he would consider proposals that find a middle ground between a broad pathway to citizenship and mass deportation. He expressed openness toward the plan put forth by the Senate, which would allow eligible undocumented immigrants to apply for permanent legal status only after the border is deemed secure.
"What the Senate is working on, we'll be interested in looking at," he said, adding that he wants real assurances on border security before considering any kind of legalization for undocumented immigrants.
Tuesday's hearing is only one sign that the House may be prepared to act on immigration reform. A secret bipartisan group of congressmen, which has worked in parallel to a group of Republicans and Democrats in the Senate, is reportedly close to reaching an agreement on comprehensive immigration reform, according to The Hill newspaper.
Republican leaders in the House have also remained open to addressing immigration reform, although they have been coy about how exactly they will handle the issue. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) is expected to speak about his views on immigration and other issues in a speech at the conservative American Enterprise Institute on Tuesday afternoon.
"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," he will say, according to excerpts provided by his office. "We must balance respect for the rule of law and respect for those waiting to enter this country legally, with care for people and families, most of whom just want to make a better life, and contribute to America."
In an interview with CBS News, Cantor praised Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the bipartisan Senate group, for tackling in the immigration issue, saying he's "going in the right direction." Cantor indicated the House would be interested in working on the areas of border security, temporary guest-worker programs, and relief for young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as minors.
"We've got things that I believe that need to be addressed from border security to worker programs. And we need to be addressing the situation where you've got some children in this country that are here because of actions of their parents and know no other place than America as home," he said. "So we've got a lot of issues, and I believe we've got to work in an expedited fashion to address them but do so that we are secure as a country of laws and that we can help our economy move forward."
Another area the House is expected to tackle is an expansion of visas for those in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) who want to live and work in the U.S. One of the witnesses at Tuesday's hearing is Vivek Wadhwa, the director of research at Duke University's engineering school and a vocal advocate for more high-skilled immigration.
Despite the signs the House could act, many are still wary about its willingness to pass sweeping immigration reform. Goodlatte and others have indicated they may prefer to tackle the issue through a piecemeal series of bills rather than a comprehensive approach favored by Obama and the Senate group.
Immigration advocates were also alarmed by the number of restrictionists who are speaking at the hearing, expressing concern that the witnesses could reflect the views of a critical mass of House Republicans.
And any immigration bill will likely have to first pass through the Judiciary Committee before it makes it to the full House. The panel is full of Republican members who have staunchly opposed immigration reform that contains legalization, including Reps. Steve King (Iowa), Lamar Smith, and Jim Sensenbrenner (Wis.) Those members could clash with Democrats who have championed legalization, such as Reps. Luis Gutierrez (Ill.) and Zoe Lofgren (Calif.)
Meanwhile, President Obama has prodded Congress to act quickly on immigration. He said in an interview with Univision last week that he expects Congress to hand him a bill to sign as soon as this summer. And in a speech last week, he said that he would propose his own bill if immigration reform becomes gridlocked in Congress.
On Tuesday, Obama will meet with more than two dozen leaders from business, labor and immigration-advocacy groups at the White House during two separate meetings in part to discuss immigration reform.