Millions of undocumented immigrants could obtain work permits and be on the way to legalizing their status under a bill that a group of Republicans and Democrats are close to releasing.
That path to citizenship, however, is likely to take at least 15 years for many, longer than envisioned by Senate immigration negotiators or by President Barack Obama.
The secretive House effort, which also aims to further tighten the border against foreigners crossing illegally into the U.S. and crack down on employers who hire them, has been overshadowed by the bipartisan negotiations in the Senate, which is expected to act first on immigration legislation. But it's an important indication that a number of lawmakers, including Republicans, in the conservative-dominated House want to have a say in crafting a comprehensive overhaul of U.S. immigration law.
"We have legislative language that we'll be ready to go forward on, not concepts but actual language," Rep. John Carter, R-Texas, a leader of the group, said this week on "Capital Tonight," a program on cable news channel YNN in Central Texas.
Without revealing details, Carter said the bill should be ready to be released in the next week or two and would address worker visas and the status of the 11 million immigrants who either arrived in the U.S. illegally or overstayed their visas.
"We will have a very, very comprehensive bill that will do a great job in addressing these issues and others," he said.
The Senate bill also is expected to be released as early as next week.
According to two House aides with knowledge of the talks, the House bill will offer a couple of possible solutions for those here illegally. Those brought to the country as young children would be able to seek citizenship relatively quickly. People working in agriculture would also get a particular path toward legalization, a distinction also made in the Senate bill.
The millions of other people here illegally would be able — after paying fines and back taxes and getting a criminal background check — to get a basic work permit, which would be renewable. After 10 years, they could get a green card. Under current law, green card holders can petition for citizenship after five years — three if they're married to a U.S. citizen — and that would likely apply to green card holders under the House bill, too.
That's a longer path to citizenship for most than the process expected from the Senate bill, which envisions a 10-year path to a green card but then only a three year wait for citizenship. Legislation drafted by the White House, which Obama has said he'll offer if the congressional process stalls, also has a 13-year path to citizenship.
The House bill would offer another option, too, the aides said. Current law requires people here illegally to return to their home countries for as long as 10 years before they can try to enter the U.S. legally. The House bill would likely allow people who came forward and acknowledged being present illegally to return to their home countries and try to come back legally, but without being subject to the lengthy waits. This could be an option for those with prospects of getting visas under existing law, such as family or employment ties.
House members are reviewing an agreement between the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO on a new low-skilled worker visa that will be part of the Senate bill, to see if it might fit in their legislation, too.
One House aide said the House bill is similar to the Senate version in requiring that a series of border security requirements be met before allowing immigrants to begin moving toward legal permanent residence. A largely voluntary electronic system that employers can use to verify the legal status of their workers, called E-Verify, would be made mandatory.
The House bill would place a strong emphasis on the importance of upholding the law, an aspect pushed by Republicans in the group, and illegal immigrants could be required to go through a legal proceeding to highlight that they broke the law, aides said.
The aides spoke on condition of anonymity because there had been no public announcement.
Overall, the aim is to satisfy House Republicans who insist that immigrants here illegally not get a special path to citizenship ahead of anyone attempting the process legally — while also meeting the concerns of Democrats who want to ensure that citizenship ultimately is widely available.
"The good news is that the Democratic bottom line and the Republican bottom line have a lot of overlap," Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., another member of the group, wrote in an opinion piece in the Orange County (Calif.) Register recently. "There is a lot of room between not preventing citizenship and not giving newly legalized immigrants a special path to citizenship. I think we will be able to find the sweet spot where neither side will be overjoyed, but each side will be satisfied."
The House group, which has a core of four Republicans and four Democrats, has been meeting off and on for years but members have kept the talks quiet, much more so than their Senate counterparts. Even now as they near a public unveiling and have briefed House leaders in both parties, lawmakers involved will say little about their deliberations. Carter said that was because "we didn't want outside influences pulling on the committee group."
Other group members on the Democratic side include Reps. Zoe Lofgren and Xavier Becerra of California and John Yarmuth of Kentucky. On the Republican side, they're Reps. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, Sam Johnson of Texas and Raul Labrador of Idaho.
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.