House Republican leaders struck out on their own path on immigration Wednesday, saying they don't trust President Obama to secure the borders and rejecting the broad approach the Senate took in favor of tackling the issue in pieces — a move that severely dims chances for a final deal this year.
"The American people want our border secured, our laws enforced, and the problems in our immigration system fixed to strengthen our economy. But they don't trust a Democratic-controlled Washington," the Republican leadership said in a joint statement after they emerged from a two-hour-long meeting with all House Republicans.
Many rank-and-file Republicans had feared their leaders would cave to political pressure from Mr. Obama, senators and even former President George W. Bush, who delivered a speech in Dallas on Wednesday urging a solution that would underscore America was "a welcoming society."
But Wednesday's meeting made clear that the party leaders are backing their rank-and-file members, most of whom reject offering the vast majority of illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship.
Instead, the House will take up some or all of the five bills that have emerged from their committees, which include pushing the administration to come up with a border strategy, imposing a mandatory national electronic worker verification system, granting more visas to high-tech workers and graduate degree holders, creating a guest-worker program for agriculture workers, and authorizing states and localities to enforce immigration laws.
Members emerged from Wednesday's meeting saying they also may tackle the issue of illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, who are considered the least blameworthy of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country. They are known as Dreamers after the Dream Act, which is legislation that never passed but would have granted them a path to citizenship.
Mr. Obama already has granted hundreds of thousands of Dreamers tentative legal status and work permits, and has said they won't be deported.
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, Nebraska Republican, said those children need to be dealt with "in a good manner, a compassionate manner, a reasonable manner, and so that's part of the discussion, too."
One option is to grant them a special pathway to citizenship but create a non-citizenship track for other illegal immigrants.
Aides said it's likely nothing happens in the House before lawmakers leave Capitol Hill in August for a monthlong recess, but if any bill is taken up this month it would be the border security measure that emerged on a unanimous voice vote from the House Committee on Homeland Security.
That legislation would give the Homeland Security Department 180 days to submit a plan for how it would gain operational control of the border, and would require the department to come up with real yardsticks of progress. For the past three years, the administration has been operating without a verifiable definition of border security.
The decision to stick with the committee process also kills the chances for the bipartisan group of House members who had been negotiating for months to try to write a broad bill, similar to the Senate's legislation, that would have combined tougher border and interior enforcement with legalization of illegal immigrants and a guest-worker program.
Rank-and-file Republicans made clear that they wouldn't accept a bill that grants a path to citizenship to most illegal immigrants.
"It is unnecessary, it is illogical, it's self-destructive to a society where you don't have liberty unless you have law enforcement," said Rep. John Abney Culberson, Texas Republican.
Ahead of the meeting, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, prodded Republicans to try to find a bipartisan solution.
But in a letter to House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, she stopped short of embracing the Senate's bill, which signals that the legislation is dead despite Senate Democrats' calls for the House to pass it as is.
Instead, Mrs. Pelosi called on the Republicans to make sure they touch all areas of the immigration debate no matter how they put bills on the floor.
"If you decide to take up various elements of comprehensive immigration reform under separate votes, it is essential to remember that those key elements are interconnected and necessary for reform," Mrs. Pelosi said in her letter.
She and other Democrats questioned whether House Republicans could pass any legislation without including a path to citizenship, which is crucial for most Democrats.
In Dallas, Mr. Bush, who repeatedly clashed with his party over immigration during his tenure, again warned Republicans about the tenor of the debate.
"I don't intend to get involved in the politics or the specifics of policy, but I do hope there is a positive resolution to the debate. And I hope during the debate that we keep a benevolent spirit in mind and we understand the contributions immigrants make to our country," Mr. Bush said at a ceremony granting citizenship to 20 people at the Bush Institute.
After he failed in efforts to get an immigration reform law in 2006 and 2007, Mr. Bush stepped up enforcement and began a process that added thousands of Border Patrol agents in the Southwest.
Mr. Obama has continued those border efforts, though he has changed deportation priorities to leave most illegal immigrants with little chance of being removed once they settle in the U.S.
Distrust of Mr. Obama and his commitment to the rule of law dominated the Republican discussion.
"This president has shown an astonishing hubris to ignore the law as it's written," said Rep. Trent Franks, Arizona Republican.
Some Republicans saw danger in even moving the issue piece by piece. They fear their leaders will send those bills into a House-Senate conference with the massive Senate bill, and what will emerge is a bill that has a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Rep. John Fleming, Louisiana Republican, said leaders gave assurances that a final conference report "would accurately reflect the will of the House, the Republican conference."
But Mr. Fleming said that was too vague and not enough for him. He wanted to hear who the negotiators would be.
"I would feel much better if I actually knew who was going to be on that," he said.
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