House Republicans’ new immigration principles may have complicated the politics of the issue for Democrats and immigrant rights advocates, who may end up having to choose between holding out for citizenship for most illegal immigrants or accepting a less-generous bill that could pass Congress this year.
The principles, released at a GOP retreat last week, call for most illegal immigrants to get some legal status, but stops short of the sort of citizenship guarantee on which Democrats have insisted for years.
Now, President Obama and his allies face the dilemma of either breaking their own principles or holding firm and potentially being blamed for scuttling a bill.
“If your standard is citizenship for everyone immediately — a clear pathway to citizenship for everyone immediately — or no immigration reform at all, you are going to get no immigration reform at all,” Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat who has been fighting for a broad immigration bill for years, said Friday as he briefed reporters.
Mr. Gutierrez has hinted in recent months that a solution short of citizenship may be necessary.
Others aren’t ready to concede.
America’s Voice, the group that hosted Mr. Gutierrez’s telephone briefing with reporters last week, issued a statement Monday calling citizenship “the essential component” in the debate and said a broad pathway for most illegal immigrants is the only solution acceptable to the group.
In an interview with CNN last week, Mr. Obama said he remains convinced that citizenship for almost all of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants is necessary. But he also said he won’t “prejudge” what House Republicans work up — leaving room to negotiate.
“If the speaker proposes something that says right away, folks aren’t being deported, families aren’t being separated, we’re able to attract top young students to provide the skills or start businesses here and then there’s a regular process of citizenship, I’m not sure how wide the divide ends up being,” Mr. Obama said.
The president said he will be consulting not just with immigration advocates in Washington, but also with ordinary people. “For a lot of families, the fear of deportation is one of the biggest concerns that they’ve got,” he said.
The GOP principles call for immediate action on border security and stricter interior enforcement, resulting in a “zero-tolerance” policy for future illegal immigration.
But the principles also allow for legal status for many illegal immigrants and an explicit path to citizenship for young illegal immigrants — the so-called Dreamers who generally came to the U.S. as minors by their parents and are considered to be the most sympathetic cases.
Those principles are a major move for Republicans, who just two years ago nominated a presidential candidate who vowed to veto citizenship for Dreamers and called for illegal immigrants to self-deport.
The Republicans’ different treatment of Dreamers complicates matters for advocates even more. Some Dreamers now worry that their cases for citizenship could fail if they are tied with the rest of the illegal immigrant population.
Mr. Obama is responsible for part of the dilemma. Using executive action in 2012, he issued a directive that Dreamers can’t be deported, so citizenship is the next step for them.