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House Immigration Negotiators Mull Citizenship Compromise

House immigration negotiators are discussing a proposal that would allow illegal immigrants to eventually earn citizenship without creating a special process that Republicans surely would oppose.

While a bipartisan immigration working group of House members is still developing a bill, sources on and off Capitol Hill say the negotiators have talked about the compromise proposal as a way to allow both Democrats and Republicans to claim victory.

Many details remain to be ironed out, and the proposal is likely to change before the group releases a bill. But the broad outline of the proposal described to CQ Roll Call suggests that the secretive House group may be close to resolving some of its differences on a controversial piece of its broader immigration overhaul.

A separate conversation is under way with a bipartisan immigration group in the Senate. It’s not clear whether the Senate is considering a similar plan. Observers consider the House talks more delicate because they have to produce something that could pass muster in the Republican-dominated chamber.

Under the proposal discussed in the House, the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country would first be allowed to stay and work provisionally for a number of years. At some point, they would be able to get green cards after being sponsored by employers or relatives who are either citizens or legal residents. In that sense, they would get visas under a modified version of the rules that exist today.

Once immigrants get green cards, which grant legal permanent residence, they can usually become citizens within five years.

To make this system work, people in the country illegally would be exempt from some of the numerical limits currently in the law, House sources say. For instance, some visa categories are now capped. And under current law, no country can claim more than 7 percent of the total number of green cards awarded every year. That has created decades-long backlogs for people coming from countries that send many immigrants to the United States, such as Mexico, China and India.

U.S. citizens related to illegal immigrants would also be able to sponsor undocumented family members for visas in much the same way they currently do for relatives living overseas. That means that blended families — where one spouse is undocumented but the other is a citizen, for instance — could continue living together as Americans.

The law today requires that illegal immigrants married to U.S. citizens must leave the country for three or 10 years while they apply for a visa. Advocates have long complained about this rule, saying it forces families to live apart unnecessarily.

Last year, the Obama administration proposed granting waivers from the three- and 10-year bars to some undocumented immigrants. The proposal in the House would completely lift the restrictions for undocumented people currently in the country, sources said.

On Wednesday, House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., suggested he could support that idea.

“If you address some kind of reform of that aspect of it, you can avail people of an opportunity that they don’t have now,” Goodlatte said. “Maybe you have to still go home and don’t have the bar, or maybe you adjust here.”

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