House Majority Leader Eric Cantor called on Congress on Tuesday to carve out a pathway to citizenship for so-called Dreamers — illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. at a young age — making him the highest-ranking Republican leader to embrace the legalization of a broad category of people living in the U.S. illegally.
Trying to marry his conservative principles with the renewed push for immigration reform on Capitol Hill, Mr. Cantor, Virginia Republican, said Congress should focus on the illegal immigrants brought here by their parents through no fault of their own — without giving any indication of what sort of immigration bill he would support in the House.
The remarks were part of a "Making Life Work" speech at the American Enterprise Institute, during which Mr. Cantor sought to repair House Republicans' battered image from the November elections. In the speech, he vowed to fight for kitchen-table issues — expanding school choice, making health care more affordable and improving federal job training programs — that have been playing second fiddle to the tax, spending and budget fights that have dominated Washington over the past two years.
"Government policy should aim to strike a balance between what is needed to advance the next generation, what we can afford, what is a federal responsibility and what is necessary to ensure our children are safe, healthy and able to reach their dreams," Mr. Cantor said.
While Democrats panned the speech as warmed-over conservative policy prescriptions of the past, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said he agreed with Mr. Cantor's "diagnosis that the shrinking middle class and the accessibility of the American dream are our most pressing challenges."
"If House Republicans can adapt their agenda to match Leader Cantor's words, this Congress could surprise people with how productive it can be," Mr. Schumer said.
More than anything, Mr. Cantor's speech signaled a rhetorical shift on the issue of immigration.
Mr. Cantor said that many of the 11 million people living in the nation illegally are "part of the fabric of our country" and that Congress should embrace laws that reflect how "we are a nation that allows anyone to start anew" and "we are also a nation of laws."
"In looking to solve this problem soon, we must balance respect for the rule of law and respect for those waiting to enter this country legally, with care for the people and families, most of whom just want to make a better life and contribute to America. A good place to start is with the kids," Mr. Cantor said, alluding to the children who have become known as Dreamers after legislative efforts aimed at legalizing them.
"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 and who know no other home."
The comments mark a change in tone for Mr. Cantor, who voted against a Dream Act proposal in 2010 that passed the Democrat-controlled House and died in the Senate after a Republican-led filibuster, which prevented action on the bill.
Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat and one of the leading advocates for immigration reform in the House, welcomed Mr. Cantor's immigration remarks. "It is important that someone of his stature and weight within Republican and conservative circles is setting a new tone on immigration for his House colleagues," he said.
The immigration issue has been thrust onto the political front burner since November, when President Obama won a second term. Among Hispanic voters, Mr. Obama had a 71 percent to 27 percent edge over Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
The issue consumed Washington last week after a bipartisan group of eight senators, led by John McCain of Arizona and Mr. Schumer, floated a broad framework that would grant legal status "on Day One" to most of the nation's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants and offer them a path to citizenship that would require them to pay fines, learn English and stay out of trouble.
The plan, also supported by Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, calls for green cards to be issued to some illegal immigrants after the border is deemed secure.
Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, an immigration reform advocacy group, said the renewed focus on the issue and Mr. Cantor's remarks reflect a new openness among Republicans to solving the problem and looking at illegal immigrants as "human beings rather than criminals."
"You see a movement in tone and more openness to common-sense policy, but the moment of truth will be whether a sufficient number of Republicans in the House will vote for reforms that put illegal immigrations on a path toward citizenship," Mr. Sharry said. "If they do, they will put this issue behind them and it will help the GOP regain their competitiveness with Latino and immigrant voters. If they don't, they will be digging an even deeper hole for the party with the fast-growing group of voters."
Roy Beck, executive direction of NumbersUSA, a group that pushes for stricter immigration limits, said the postelection push for immigration reform is losing steam because the two parties don't see eye-to-eye on "amnesty" or when the border will be secure enough to give illegal immigrants green cards.
"This is a trial balloon," Mr. Beck said about Mr. Cantor's comments. "He wants to send out a signal to particular demographic groups that he has an openness. But ... he is not talking about 11 million people. He seems to be defining something that would be offered to less than a million. It is a sign of openness and a sign of real limits.
"It shows Cantor is more reasonable than Democrats at this point. He is showing a willing to do a major compromise, where Democrats are saying no compromise of any kind," he said.
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