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House Plan: Illegal Immigrants Sentenced to Probation

House immigration negotiators believe they might have found a way to soften conservative criticism directed at a proposal that would provide millions of illegal immigrants with a pathway to citizenship.

The House immigration working group has tentatively settled on a plan that would require illegal immigrants to appear in federal court and plead guilty to breaking U.S. immigration law. Illegal immigrants would be required to complete this step before embarking on a conditional pathway to citizenship that would take at least a decade. In fact, illegal immigrants would essentially be granted legal status when a federal judge sentences them to “probation” for illegally crossing the border.

“The legal process in the House bill is stiffer to emphasize that the law was broken, and to [recognize] the need to uphold the rule of law,” said a Republican congressional aide familiar with the House immigration working group’s negotiations.

An undocumented immigrant’s probation sentence would likely come with certain conditions and run about five years, and then be renewed for another five years to cover the assumed 10-year path-to-citizenship timetable. The GOP congressional aide described the process as similar to how judges handle small drug crimes, in which offenders are sentenced to probation, rather than jail, because it forces them to acknowledge that they broke the law but saves taxpayers the expense of incarceration.

No comprehensive immigration overhaul is likely to clear Congress without legalizing the millions of illegal immigrants residents and offering them a path to eventual citizenship. Senate Democrats and President Barack Obama would assuredly block it, not to mention decline to agree to Republican demands for tougher border enforcement and a conditional, multiyear process to achieve citizenship.

But supporting an immigration overhaul that includes a path to citizenship remains the biggest political challenge for Republicans. Many conservative activists — and some Republican lawmakers — opposed to comprehensive immigration reform have vocally savaged the Senate’s “gang of eight” compromise, in particular over its citizenship pathway component.

Anticipating a similar uproar as any House bill moves forward, the House immigration working group of four Democrats and four Republicans have developed a proposal aimed at placating conservatives who are opposed in principle to a pathway to citizenship on the grounds that it allows illegal immigrants to profit from breaking the law; weakens the rule of law overall; and sends the wrong message to millions of people who are playing by the rules and trying immigrate legally.

The Republican congressional aide said the House group understands that GOP members are concerned about the “amnesty” tag and are doing everything they can to make it clear that their bill forces illegal immigrants to admit their crime and undertake an arduous path to citizenship. The House group’s goal, the aide said, is to stop the problem of illegal immigration once and for all, so that 10 years from now the number of undocumented immigrants has not increased from approximately 11 million to 30 million.

But this individual acknowledged that it’s probably impossible to satisfy the most ardent critics, who will label as “amnesty” any legislation that includes a path to citizenship. “If that’s the case, then our bill is amnesty,” the aide said.