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House Immigration Hearing Shows Little GOP Movement on Citizenship

House Republicans cast doubt on efforts to pass a comprehensive immigration overhaul Tuesday and indicated that Congress should look for a middle ground that would legalize the status of illegal immigrants but stop short of granting them citizenship.

At the first hearing of this Congress on the issue, Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee made clear their position on immigration policy has not changed substantially. While they support granting more visas to high-tech foreign workers, they would hesitate to grant citizenship to people who have broken the law in moving to the country.

Their statements hint at the hurdles to come in Capitol Hill’s immigration debate. Bipartisan groups in the House and the Senate are working toward separate comprehensive bills that they hope to unveil in the weeks ahead. The Senate group, which includes four Republicans, has already publicly endorsed granting a path to citizenship to the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States.

Democrats in both chambers have long insisted that any immigration bill should include citizenship to win their support. But Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., the new Judiciary Committee chairman, called granting citizenship to undocumented immigrants an “extreme option” at Tuesday’s hearing.

Calling it “the question of the day,” Goodlatte asked: “Are there options that we should consider between the extremes of mass deportation and a pathway to citizenship for those not lawfully present in the United States?”

San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, one of the panel witnesses and a rapidly-rising star in Democratic circles, responded: “A pathway to citizenship should be the option the country selects. I don’t see that as an extreme option.”

Other Republicans brought up similar points again and again. Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., the immigration subcommittee’s new chairman, suggested that granting citizenship to people who have moved to the country illegally would be a tough sell.

“What we cannot become is a country where the laws apply to some of the people some of the time,” he said, taking a swing at the Obama administration’s policy of not deporting young people brought to the country illegally as children.

That position could put House Republicans at odds with their Senate counterparts, some of whom have gotten behind citizenship. It could also put them at odds with their own Majority Leader, Eric Cantor, R-Va. As the hearing was under way Tuesday, Cantor was addressing the American Enterprise Institute, where he said he would support citizenship for young people brought to the country illegally as children.

That measure, known in Congress as the DREAM Act, has been a hot topic of immigration policy. Republicans have opposed the proposal in recent years but Cantor’s endorsement could move some of his colleagues.

“One of the great founding principles of our country was that children should not be punished for the mistakes of their parents,” Cantor said. “It is time to provide an opportunity for legal residence and citizenship for those who were brought to this country as children and who know no other home.”

House Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, also praised the bipartisan efforts Tuesday but refused to endorse the Senate’s proposals. He struck a cautious note, saying he is in no hurry to put an immigration bill on the floor.

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