The top Republican lawmaker in charge of writing the House version of an immigration reform bill expressed a willingness to offering a path to legality for illegal immigrants already living within the U.S. He stopped short, however, of describing the details of how the provisions would work.
Virginia Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said on Wednesday he's "open" to re-examing federal immigration laws that currently offer no option for illegal immigrants who seek legality that doesn't involve first returning to their home countries.
"We're open to the idea that the large number of people who are not here lawfully are not a good thing to have," Goodlatte told reporters on Wednesday during a meeting sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. "Focusing on where we can find that common ground on legal status would be a good step."
The House and Senate are currently crafting proposals to overhaul federal immigration laws, taking early steps for what is expected to be a months-long legislative process. In January, a bipartisan group of senators outlined a series of principles they hope will guide the process in the upper chamber, and Goodlatte said he was meeting regularly with a similar bipartisan group in the House. The judiciary committees in both the House and Senate are conducting ongoing hearings on key parts of the bills, which lawmakers expect to introduce to their chambers by spring with a vote planned by July.
Goodlatte, who worked as an immigration lawyer before joining the House, told National Public Radio in an interview last week that he opposes offering "a path to citizenship" to illegal immigrants as part of a reform package, but he moved to clarify his remarks on Wednesday by saying "we have to" allow "those living in the shadows" to "participate in our society."
"Everybody has a different definition about what a pathway to citizenship is. To me, rather than getting bogged down in semantics, we ought to look at what actually would enable us to find common ground and pass legislation. That's a difficult thing by itself," he said. "There's a broad spectrum between deportation and a special pathway to citizenship to find a way to bring people out of the shadows and give them legal status to allow them to be better able to participate in our society, and we should be focused there and recognize that we have to do that."
While Goodlatte was short on details—he said he wants to give House members more time to learn about and debate the issue—he did say that a robust guest-worker program would be "crucial" for any final bill. For now, he said, it would be better for the debate to continue within the committee.
"Rather than negotiate those concerns in public, I think it's better to let the process work and see what kind of consensus we can develop," he said.