As House Republican leaders prepare to unveil their plan for immigration reform, addressing the undocumented population remains the thorniest issue.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that the GOP’s framework will call for a path to legal status for many of the 11.7 million immigrants living here without papers. But the document specifically opposes a “special pathway to citizenship,” except for undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children.
The forthcoming plan has already run into resistance among conservatives who don’t want any legalization at all. But offering legal status — and not citizenship — isn’t enough for at least one pro-reform GOP lawmaker: Rep. Jeff Denham.
The California congressman told Fusion’s Jorge Ramos on Tuesday that “you have to have some type of citizenship in the future” as part of an immigration-reform package.
“Whether we start with a provisional status and legal permanent residence … or we set up some other way to assimilate legally, you can’t ever put in something that says, ‘You can never become a citizen,’” he said in an interview. “That’s un-American.”
There are a few caveats here. The fine print of the GOP’s principles has not yet been released, so we don’t know whether it would specifically bar immigrants from ever becoming citizens.
In the past, high-ranking Republicans have said they want to legalize undocumented immigrants, and even allow some of them to earn citizenship under existing laws. But they don’t want to create new legal avenues for them to obtain citizenship, as the Senate’s bipartisan immigration overhaul does.
Immigrant-rights activists are not enthusiastic about that idea, since it would open a pathway to citizenship for a only small sliver of undocumented immigrants, such as those who have close family or work ties to the U.S. Plus, adding more immigrants to existing pathways could create even bigger backlogs (or “lines”) to gain permanent legal status.
Denham also is not your typical House Republican. He represents a district that is 40 percent Latino and has previously backed a comprehensive immigration bill written by Democrats. In short, there are not many more House GOPers who have the same views on immigration.
Still, Denham’s comments are significant. The Times notes that the framework is “more of an attempt to test the waters than a blueprint for action.” Denham’s stance indicates that the plan could face pushback from pro-immigration factions within the GOP, and not just restrictionists.
In the coming months, Denham could emerge as a strong voice pulling his party toward embracing a path to citizenship.
“I expect if you are going to come out of the shadows, then you’re going to want to have some type of hope in the future that you’re going to improve your life and, yes, accomplish that American Dream,” Denham told Ramos.
Jordan Fabian is Fusion's politics editor, writing about campaigns, Congress, immigration, and more. When he's not working, you can find him at the ice rink or at home with his wife, Melissa.