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.
But Mr. Obama also has boosted deportation numbers, having sent about 2 million immigrants back home during his five years in office. That has prompted some advocates to dub him "deporter in chief," and has spurred major changes in attitudes among rank-and-file immigrants.
A Pew Hispanic Center poll of Hispanics and Asian-Americans in December found that they were more worried about deportations than they were concerned about getting a pathway to citizenship.
Cesar Vargas, co-director of the Dream Action Coalition, said the debate over citizenship versus deportations is an abstraction for many in Washington, but for Dreamers, many of whose parents face the possibility of deportation, it's a reality. Stopping deportations is increasingly more important than holding out for citizenship.
"Our objective is not so much to say, 'Hey, we don't want citizenship.' Citizenship matters. Of course we want citizenship for our parents. However, there is an alarming crisis for deportations, and D.C. isn't seeing it," he said.
Mr. Vargas and others were quick to say that they won't accept a bill that would permanently ban any pathway to citizenship because would be cruel.
David Galvan, pastor of New Life Baptist Church in Dallas, said the parents in his congregation chiefly care about guaranteeing a way to remain in the country with their families without fear of deportation.
"Their concern is very simply to know that they are legally here, whether it's a work permit or whether it's some sort of residency or something that will allow them to know that they don't have to be hiding," he said on a call with fellow evangelical pastors who want to see action on immigration this year.
But Lorella Praeli, advocacy and policy director at United We Dream, another group that focuses on Dreamers, said immigrant rights proponents aren't ready to give up on a broad pathway to citizenship. She argued that having some folks in permanent legal status without a chance at citizenship would amount to second-class status.
"United We Dream will never stand up and advocate second-class status," she said.
All sides are left to guess what exactly the House Republicans have in mind. Party leaders released only a short set of principles, which is tough to stack up against the 1,197-page bill that emerged from the Senate last year.
That Senate bill offers a pathway to citizenship for most illegal immigrants, which according to government accountants' estimates could mean 7 million to 8 million people would be on the path to citizenship at the end of a decade.
By contrast, the House Republicans' principles could mean a guaranteed path to citizenship only for the so-called Dreamers, whose number may be 1 million to 1.5 million.
Others would be eligible for legal status, though what that means remains murky. They most likely would get a work permit and permanent permission to remain in the country, though it's not clear what kinds of welfare benefits or other safety-net programs would be open to them.
Full citizenship means access to all of those programs, as well as the right to vote.
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