By Laura Meckler
An effort by House lawmakers to overhaul immigration policy, which seemed all but dead for much of last year, is about to be revived and take center stage in Congress, with a new push by House Republican leaders and a fresh pitch by President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address Tuesday.
House GOP leaders are expected to release broad principles to guide the chamber’s immigration debate as soon as the coming week. They will include a call to grant legal status to millions of people now in the country illegally, people familiar with the plans say, a step that many in the GOP oppose as a reward for people who broke U.S. law.
Behind the scenes, Republican lawmakers already are writing detailed legislation, with the encouragement of House GOP leaders, that would also offer the chance at citizenship for many here illegally, as Republicans work to find a mix of proposals that can pass the chamber.
Mr. Obama, in his address Tuesday to a joint session of Congress and the nation, is expected to again call on lawmakers to pass an overhaul of immigration laws, building on the comprehensive bill that won bipartisan approval last year in the Senate.
Many Republicans have warned that the GOP faces political peril if it doesn’t overcome the resistance of many in the party to new immigration laws. If the legislative effort fails, Democrats and their allies are prepared to use the issue to attack GOP candidates in this fall’s elections and the 2016 presidential race.
In the House, the immigration principles—expected to be a one-page sheet—likely will be released in time for debate at a House Republican retreat late in the week in Cambridge, Md., to discuss the year’s agenda. That will help House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) figure out if there is enough support among his members to move forward.
The GOP principles will embrace legal status for many of the nation’s 11.5 million illegal immigrants, people close to the process said, knowing that Democrats likely will insist on such a plan in return for support needed to pass legislation. They will also offer citizenship for people brought to the U.S. as children, new enforcement provisions and fixes to the legal immigration system, these people said.
Still, the legislation faces a long road. It will be challenging for House leaders to win over enough Democrats without losing a substantial number of Republicans. Even if the House manages to pass a series of immigration bills, they still would need to be reconciled with the Senate’s broad legislation, and Mr. Boehner has said he won’t work off the sweeping bill that passed that chamber.
In a sign that the debate is imminent, opponents of an immigration overhaul have begun to organize. Staff members from about 15 House offices met Thursday with the staff of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), a leading opponent of the Senate overhaul bill, to discuss their best arguments, an aide to Mr. Sessions said.
House leaders hope to bring legislation to the floor as early as April, the people close to the process said, after the deadline has passed in many states for challengers to file paperwork needed to run for Congress. Republican leaders hope that would diminish chances that a lawmaker’s support for immigration bills winds up sparking a primary-election fight.
Supporters of new immigration laws said Friday that they were stepping up their activism. On Friday, the Partnership for a New American Economy, a group backed by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, announced a campaign to urge entrepreneurs, farmers and students to press for the overhaul. That campaign was alongside the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Republican Gov. Rick Snyder of Michigan.
Legislation being drafted would reject a “special path” to citizenship for illegal immigrants, which was included in the Senate bill, the people familiar with the process said. But it would grant legal status for all illegal immigrants who meet qualifications, allowing them to work and travel without fear of deportation.
The legislation under development also would allow this group to tap into existing paths, available to any newcomer, to gain permanent legal residence, also known as a green card. Once someone has a green card, they are eligible to apply for citizenship.
At the same time, the legislation would make substantial changes to immigration law to clear impediments from those existing paths. Without those changes, illegal immigrants would face big backlogs and requirements that they return to their home countries before applying for a green card.
For instance, it may ease quotas that have created backlogs in certain types of green-card applications. Legislation may also change existing law that requires most people in the country illegally for more than six months to leave the U.S. for three years before becoming eligible for a green card. Those in the country for longer than a year must leave for 10 years before they are eligible to apply.
One conservative research group, the National Foundation for American Policy, estimated that between 4.4 million and 6.5 million people qualify under a system like this, compared with eight million people under the Senate bill.
While the principles won’t open a new pathway to citizenship, lawmakers and aides note that existing law allows anyone with a green card to apply for citizenship after five years.
“Good policy will get us the support we need in the House,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R., Fla.), who is drafting legislation with the encouragement of House leaders. “I’m more optimistic now that I have ever been in my years in Congress.”
Other House Republicans are working on legalization bills, as well, including Rep. Raúl Labrador of Idaho. But House leadership has offered particular encouragement to Mr. Diaz-Balart’s work.
Even as Republican leaders have said they won’t pass a single, comprehensive bill, some of their pieces would interact with one another. For example, Mr. Diaz-Balart is planning to combine border security and legalization into one bill, people familiar with his work said. That is necessary because the legalization process wouldn’t be allowed to proceed unless enforcement measures are met. That approach also has political benefits—Republicans are unlikely to support legalization if they are not assured that law enforcement is strengthened, too.
Another proposal that could draw GOP votes would strip legal status from people who have gained it—returning them to illegal status—if an employment-verification system called eVerify isn’t up and running under designated timelines.
The House is also considering giving state and local governments the authority to write immigration-enforcement laws, an idea that Democrats are likely to resist.
In addition, Republicans envision an adjudication process of sorts whereby illegal immigrants are required to admit guilt and “get right with the law” before they can access any of the law’s benefits.
Mr. Obama said last year that he could accept a House approach of breaking the immigration issue into pieces of legislation, as long as the pieces he deems critical are there. In his speech Tuesday, he will argue that the two parties both hold an interest in passing an overhaul, according to a person who attended a recent White House briefing on the speech.
Mr. Obama has moved carefully on immigration. Members of both parties in Congress have told him that pushing too hard could make Republicans less likely to act, for fear of being seen as allied with him.