The House Republicans' Kids Act—a path to citizenship for undocumented youth brought here as children—has hit a stumbling block over whether those "kids" would be able to sponsor their undocumented parents for green cards after they become citizens themselves, according to people close to the negotiations. How the GOP sponsors, led by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, come down on the question could affect whether the legislation is taken seriously by Democrats and the immigrant community.
The Kids Act is viewed by many lawmakers involved in immigration talks as the fulcrum on which the entire House negotiation turns. The bill addresses the dicey question of legalization for at least one group of undocumented immigrants, and it has Republican support from rank-and-file members and party leaders. The Kids Act, combined with a border security/enforcement measure and a narrow work-visa proposal, could form the three pillars of an immigration package that would signal to Latino voters in particular that House Republicans aren't ignoring the issue.
The problem comes when lawmakers start asking what happens to the children who eventually become citizens under the bill. Under current law, they would be allowed to sponsor family members, including parents, for green cards. That worries some Republicans who have long questioned the utility of family-based immigration in the United States. It also is of concern to any member who justifies support by saying that unauthorized immigrants brought here as children were not at fault, their parents were.
Democrats are angered by this line of reasoning, pointing out that Republicans repeatedly say they support a path to citizenship for people without papers if those people become citizens using existing law. Yet they would be changing existing law by including a provision in the Kids Act that bars these particular citizens from sponsoring their family members. What's more, advocates say the provision would codify a basic unfairness into the concept of citizenship. Some citizens—i.e., the "kids"—would have fewer rights than others.
Some Democrats and immigrant-advocacy groups have privately told Republicans that they would happily support Cantor's legislation if it did not touch citizenship rules. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., a leader in the bipartisan efforts to pass immigration overhaul in the House, is watching the back-and-forth on the Kids Act carefully, hoping that it could jump-start a stalled conversation on immigration. But even for Gutierrez, tinkering with existing citizen-sponsorship rights is a deal breaker. "The congressman would support the Kids Act if it is serious and the reform elements are good enough and doesn't contain poison pills, like a prohibition on citizens sponsoring family members for legal immigration," his spokesman, Douglas Rivlin, said in a statement.
A Kids Act that is supported only by Republicans would signal that bipartisan negotiations on immigration are essentially over for the current Congress. It is the only House bill being worked on by Republicans that addresses Democrats' core issue on immigration, the status of undocumented immigrants. Without it, it's hard to see anything happening.
The bipartisan opportunities for immigration reform are breaking down anyway, but a few lawmakers on both sides of the aisle don't want to slam the door completely. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., is one of them. She declined until last week to cosponsor House Democrats' broad immigration bill mirroring a Senate-passed measure because she wanted to keep open the possibility of bipartisan negotiations.
She says the Democrat-sponsored bill won't make a "material difference" in the immigration debate. The bill is widely viewed as Democrats' political tool to pressure Republicans on immigration. That narrative was put into sharper focus when the bill was unveiled by the figure who is least trustworthy to House Republicans, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.
This article appears in the November 4, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.