WASHINGTON -- House Republicans insisted on Tuesday that Democrats are showing a lack of willingness to compromise on immigration reform by calling for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, arguing that they should be more open to legislation without it.
"Are there options that we should consider between the extremes of mass deportation and the pathway to citizenship for those not lawfully present in the United States?" Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, asked San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro (D) at a hearing on immigration reform, the first on the issue for the 113th Congress.
Another top Republican, immigration subcommittee chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), accused Democrats of refusing to come toward the center.
"I think you earlier referenced that [a pathway to citizenship] as compromise, and I'm curious, a compromise between what?" he said to Castro. "I don't see anyone advocating for full-fledged citizenship without background checks, for full-fledged citizenship without taxes, for full-fledged citizenship without fines. So It's a compromise between what?"
A number of other GOP members of the committee made similar statements. They questioned Castro in particular, repeatedly asking whether he would support immigration reform that did not allow undocumented immigrants already in the United States to become citizens. Castro is not a member of Congress, and won't get to vote on the matter, but lawmakers used him as a stand-in for Democrats who say any immigration bill must include such a pathway, arguing such an insistence could derail any reform efforts.
Castro reiterated that there must be a way for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the United States to become citizens.
"I do believe that a pathway to citizenship should be the option that Congress selects -- I don't see that as an extreme option," Castro replied to Goodlatte. "I would disagree with the characterization of that as the extreme," he added later.
Some Republicans hold that view, too, and previous attempts at immigration reform have always addressed the possibility. There would be a pathway to citizenship under a bipartisan Senate plan released by the "gang of eight" legislators last week, and one brewing fight appears to be over how difficult that road should be -- not whether it should exist at all. In the House, a bipartisan group is working on a similar effort, and many of its members also believe undocumented immigrants should be given a chance to become citizens.
But the progress made by those bipartisan groups on the issue masks the difficulty that remains. Gowdy indicated openness to the Senate plan when it was released last week, but Goodlatte told USA Today on Monday that is he not convinced by the Senate immigration plan because of supporters' insistence that there be a pathway to citizenship. He questioned whether Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) is "serious about doing immigration reform."
Despite arguments against a pathway to citizenship, the tone of the Judiciary Committee hearing was noticeably calmer from hearings on immigration last year. In March, some members insisted during the Judiciary's subcommittee hearings on immigration that immigrants in detention were being treated almost as if they were on a nice vacation.
Some who were more vocal at that hearing were less combative this time around. But they were still highly skeptical of reform. Gowdy asked Castro whether he thought people should be forced to become citizens even if they didn't want to. (Castro said he did not.)
Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), one of the more outspoken hardliners on immigration, implied Castro was for open borders, an argument the mayor also rejected.
"I recall you mentioning that it's not a zero-sum game, that we can have skilled workers and unskilled workers and family reunification," King said. "A zero-sum game always gets my attention, because we have about 6.3 billion people on the planet. So that would be the universe you've addressed, I think. Do you believe there should be a limit to the people brought into the United States?"
Some committee members said they might be more likely to support piecemeal reform, including bills to improve the legal immigration process.
"When you take [on] comprehensive, then we're dealing with certain issues like full citizenship," said Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.). "Whatever else we disagree on, I think we can agree on that that's a more toxic and contentious issue -- ramming [through] full amnesty."
Democrats, meanwhile, pointed to already high deportation rates and border enforcement as evidence that President Obama has already held up his end of the deal by enforcing existing immigration law -- an argument the committee spent a later portion of the hearing discussing.
Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the ranking member on the Judiciary Committee, said during the hearing that he appreciated the work on immigration reform, even if it was far from solved.
"We may not have settled much," he said. "But that's the way these things start out, isn't it?"