Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Haley Barbour, the former governor of Mississippi, said on Monday that the issue of whether or not to give the nation's illegal immigrants the eventual opportunity to become citizens is one of the thorniest decisions politicians are likely to face in the immigration reform debate.
Rice and Barbour, both Republicans, are joining with Democratic former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell in a commission on immigration reform organized by the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Sen. John McCain's former chief of staff Rebecca Tallent left McCain's office to spearhead the commission, which will present detailed proposals on immigration reform in the coming months and hold events countrywide to build momentum for reform.
"This is the hardest and most vexing issue," Rice said on a conference call with reporters about whether the immigration reform bill should contain a path to citizenship. "So I look forward to sharing views with other members of the task force." Rice said she remains "open minded" on the issue.
"I personally believe that there should be a path to citizenship that is strenuous," Barbour said, but added he thinks it's one of the "knottiest" issues that will need to be addressed.
Rendell, for his part, said it would be unfair and "totally unworkable" to give 11 million people a temporary legal status that could never lead to permanent status. Immigration rights activists have argued that doing so would create an "underclass" of immigrants in the country.
A bipartisan working group in the Senate and President Barack Obama have both released separate reform proposals that would allow most of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country to become citizens. In both plans, immigrants would have to pay fines, learn English and wait behind all current green card applicants before receiving permanent legal status, which would take at least a decade. The plans also propose beefing up border security, increasing visas for highly skilled workers and instituting an e-verify system. Some House Republicans have shown an aversion to the citizenship portion of those plans, setting the stage for a potential confrontation over the issue in the coming months.
But despite this potential sticking point, the Bipartisan Policy Center's chairs emphasized the issues that are attracting a consensus in the early days of the debate, including the need to stop future illegal immigration and the need to give foreign students attending U.S. schools to study science and engineering green cards when they graduate.
"We know we have an issue that has to be resolved," Rice said. "No one is happy with the state of immigration policy in the United States today."
Rice added that she believes immigration reform has a better chance of passing now than in 2007, when President George W. Bush unsuccessfully pushed for a bill. She pointed out that that bill was introduced very late into Bush's second term.
"Frankly, it had been a long seven years at that point," she said. "I think the environment is better now. ... Now we have some new energy to the issue."