Setting up a potential clash with the Republicans who control the House, congressional Democrats insisted Tuesday they will not agree to any immigration bill that lacks a path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants living illegally in the United States.
Lawmakers staked out the position after a private meeting Tuesday morning between the House Democratic caucus and the four Senate Democrats who helped write a comprehensive immigration bill that passed the Senate last month.
"Without a path to citizenship there is not going to be a bill, there can't be a bill," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters after the meeting.
The stance met quick resistance from House Republicans who are expected to meet Wednesday on how to move forward with the immigration issue. Many conservatives who control the House oppose giving citizenship to people who crossed the border illegally or overstayed their visas.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who chairs the House Judiciary Committee's immigration subcommittee, said in an interview that Democrats risk ending up with no bill at all if they insist on citizenship for all those here illegally.
"When the bar has been set, as it has been by some of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle, that it's full-fledged citizenship for all 11 million or nothing, because that's so overtly political they may end up with nothing," said Gowdy.
Gowdy favors a citizenship path for people brought to the country as youths, military veterans, and certain others who've lived here for years and contributed to society.
Other House Republicans are open to allowing guest worker or some other legal status to people now here illegally, but would stop short of citizenship.
But Schumer insisted Democrats will accept nothing less.
House GOP leaders are deliberating how to deal with the immigration bill after the Senate passed its White House-backed legislation on a bipartisan vote of 68 to 32. The Senate bill spends $46 billion to secure the border, requires employers to check their workers' legal status, expands visa programs to allow hundreds of thousands of high- and low-skilled workers into the country, and establishes a 13-year path to citizenship for those here illegally, provided they pay fines and meet certain conditions.
In addition to their concerns about the citizenship path, many House Republicans prefer to proceed in a step-by-step fashion rather than with a single, sweeping bill like the Senate. The House Judiciary Committee has approved four separate bills dealing with various aspects of the immigration issue, including enforcing U.S. laws and creating an agriculture guest worker program, but none of the bills addresses how to deal with the millions already here illegally.
House Republicans are also insisting on stronger border security provisions than in the Senate bill.
"We all believe we're going to go forward on immigration reform. The first big step is you have to have a serious border security, because without serious border security what you're going to end up with is the same thing you saw after the 1986 act," said House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, referring to an immigration bill signed by President Ronald Reagan that gave citizenship to some 3 million but failed to end illegal immigrationdespite promises at the time that it would do so.
"And so we believe that a commonsense, step-by-step approach is the right way. We talked about it for months," Boehner said.
The Senate bill would allow immigrants here illegally to obtain a provisional legal status while the border security improvements were being put in place, but that no one could get a permanent resident green card until the border improvements were implemented. Many House Republicans, on the other hand, want to accomplish border security before anyone can get even a provisional legal status.
Schumer didn't rule out compromise on that issue. "The triggers have to be specific and achievable," he said. "They cannot be used by someone who's against a path to citizenship to block it."