But they were encouraged by signals from key GOP leaders that the House is willing to move forward on legislation that could produce a breakthrough in the stalled negotiations.
Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said Thursday that his panel is working on four new pieces of legislation dealing with border-control laws. He did not disclose details but emphasized the need to resolve the status of people living in the country illegally.
“We want to do immigration reform right,” Goodlatte told about 70 Hispanic leaders during a roundtable discussion on Capitol Hill, adding that he hopes the House can begin considering bills next month.
His remarks boosted the spirits of advocates who have become increasingly fretful that Republicans have been dragging out the process in an effort to kill momentum for a deal.
The Democratic-controlled Senate approved a bipartisan plan in June that features a 13-year path to citizenship for immigrants who are in the country illegally, the key sticking point for many House Republicans.
From the beginning, the chances of a comprehensive deal in the House have been remote. An attempt to replicate the Senate’s broad approach foundered last week when two more House Republicans dropped out of bipartisan talks. Instead, GOP leaders have said they will pursue a series of smaller bills.
Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) told immigration advocates in a private conversation this month that the issue remains on the agenda despite a crowded calendar that also includes negotiations on the budget and the debt ceiling, according to a person familiar with the discussions.
“I’m optimistic the House will get to the package” of immigration bills, said Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which is pushing for a deal. “Indications from Representative Goodlatte and others are that they want to move on immigration, that doing nothing is not an option. I am of the belief, despite reports that immigration reform is dead, that it’s very much alive.”
Goodlatte, whose committee oversees immigration legislation, has said he is open to granting legal status to otherwise law-abiding undocumented immigrants. He and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) are reportedly working on a bill that would grant such status to young people who were brought to the country illegally by their parents.
However, Goodlatte has said he does not support a “special path” that would give immigrants who broke the law to enter the country preferential treatment over other foreigners in pursuing citizenship. Once granted legal status, those immigrants could apply for citizenship through existing channels, Goodlatte has said.
“A lot comes down to nuance,” said an aide to another GOP House member, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk on the record. “A ‘special pathway’ is a term a lot of Republicans don’t like.”
By contrast, the Senate bill would guarantee that most undocumented immigrants could earn green cards in 10 years, and citizenship three years after that, if they paid fines, learned English, remained employed and did not commit crimes.
How clear that path to citizenship is promises to be the crucial debate in the House. The Obama administration and Senate Democrats have said they will not support a plan that does not offer illegal immigrants a clear path to becoming citizens, because that would risk creating a legalized underclass.
Alfonso Aguilar, the executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles and the moderator of the GOP’s roundtable last week, said he believes that House Republicans are sincere in their pledge to move forward.
“I just hope that if Democrats want to get this done, they wouldn’t kill a bill that provides legal status just because they have to have a ‘special path’ to citizenship,” Aguilar said. “That would show they are playing politics.”
Some Democrats fear that House Republicans are not serious about passing bills to address the fate of the undocumented. A Democratic Senate aide, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss ongoing negotiations, said Friday that when it comes to what Goodlatte’s committee will endorse on the question of citizenship, the “devil is in the details.” If the committee, and the full House, can produce a bill that offers at least some illegal immigrants a chance at citizenship, this aide said, then the leaders of the two chambers could engage in a conference aimed at negotiating a compromise.
However, House conservatives are skeptical of a conference because they fear that the leadership would agree to a more liberal bill than they want in an effort to move the issue off the agenda for the 2016 presidential race. Latinos overwhelmingly supported President Obama’s reelection last fall.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who led the negotiations on the Senate plan, acknowledged that the debate over the budget has slowed progress on immigration. But he said he remains “hopeful that there are enough Republicans in the House who want to get something done that we can get a bill this year.”
Advocates have said they will continue to pressure the House, emphasizing that Republicans’ electoral troubles will only get worse if they do not act, since Latinos and Asians are among the fastest-growing voting blocs.
House GOP leaders posted a video on YouTube last week to kick off Hispanic Heritage Month in which Boehner, Cantor, Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) and Conference Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.) hail the contributions of Hispanic Americans.
But the video drew angry comments from viewers upset that it made no mention of immigration, and a Miami advocacy group quickly produced a parody video mocking House Republicans for what it saw as pandering.