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Congressional fight focused on citizenship for undocumented immigrants

Democratic U.S. Rep. Grace Napolitano of El Monte spoke Wednesday at a Congressional Hispanic Caucus event to call for comprehensive immigration reform.
Democratic U.S. Rep. Grace Napolitano of El Monte spoke Wednesday at a Congressional Hispanic Caucus event to call for comprehensive immigration reform.

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Suddenly, immigration is the buzz word on Capitol Hill. A pair of Republican Senators floated their idea Tuesday for giving legal status to illegal young people, and the House of Representatives is expected to vote Friday on a visa bill. But the chances of a comprehensive immigration bill passing both the House and Senate anytime soon remain slim.

Shortly after the election, House Speaker John Boehner seemed to open the door to immigration reform. He called for a "common sense, step-by-step approach, it would secure our borders, allow us to enforce our laws and fix a broken immigration system."

L.A. Congressman Xavier Becerra, a top Democrat in the House, says Boehner isn’t the only Republican talking immigration, citing both talk show host Sean Hannity and Super PAC leader Karl Rove.

"The question is no longer if," said Becerra, "it’s when.  Will we get a solid, sensible bill done? That’s the question."

Becerra spoke Wednesday morning after he and fellow Democrats in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus made it clear what “sensible” means to them. Congresswoman Grace Napolitano of El Monte listed the steps undocumented immigrants would take, including learning English and American civics, and paying taxes to "earn their path to citizenship."

But citizenship is not acceptable to Republicans. A bill introduced this week by a pair of GOP Senators from border states, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Jon Kyle of Arizona, would give legal status, but not citizenship, to young immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents. 

Many Republicans — including Brian Bilbray of San Diego — say granting citizenship just encourages the next generation of undocumented immigrants to cross the border. Bilbray has said you "can’t reward an illegal act and then expect people to think you really don’t want them to do it." 

But Bilbray, head of the conservative House Immigration Reform Caucus, lost his bid for re-election. So did Elton Gallegly of Simi Valley, who has been called “one of the Top Ten Illegal Immigration Hawks” in Congress. 

Congressman Becerra says they aren’t the only hard-liners leaving Congress : "Do the numbers bode better for a reform within the House of Representatives? I think they do. Because the really virulent anti-immigrant voices in the House and the Senate have diminished." 

Becerra says the GOP is opening the door to talk of immigration reform because of political reality: "Republicans are looking at the electoral map and recognizing that they are committing political suicide by driving Latinos — and, quite honestly, communities that have large immigrant-based populations — away from the Republican party."

Officially, Democrats say they are open to negotiation on what would be in a comprehensive immigration bill.  But they draw a line in the sand over citizenship, saying granting legal status alone would create a permanent underclass in America, something that hasn’t worked in Germany. 

And they are united against a GOP visa bill up for a vote on Friday. The measure increases the number of visas for highly educated workers — something Democrats support.  But it doesn’t contain provisions to help the workers’ families.

It’s highly unlikely that any bill will get to the President’s desk before the new Congress takes office in January.