WASHINGTON -- Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) declined on Wednesday to define what he considers a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants -- although he said he opposes a "special" pathway -- giving the legislator some wiggle room as he and his colleagues work on an immigration reform bill that could pass in the House.
"I would prefer to not try to define the details of how a legalization process would work until we know what the willingness is of the representatives of the people, after they've been briefed on the issue and had an opportunity to communicate with their constituents, to come back and let us know," the House Judiciary Committee chairman said at an event hosted by the Christian Science Monitor. "We're open to the idea that the large number of people who are not here lawfully are not a good thing to have ... operating in the shadows."
The definition of a "special pathway to citizenship" is a nebulous one, ranging from allowing undocumented immigrants to quickly begin a process of becoming citizens to simply giving them the ability to become citizens at all. Goodlatte acknowledged there is no set definition, but wouldn't offer his. Instead, he expressed openness to considering a number of options, including the type of pathway proposed by the Senate "gang of eight." The "gang of eight" proposal would allow undocumented immigrants to enter a process for a green card and eventual citizenship, but only after certain border provisions were met. Goodlatte didn't endorse the process specifically -- he said he still has a number of concerns -- but his reluctance to rule out any measures wholesale showed some flexibility.
"I do have concerns about a lot of the different proposals I've seen, and rather than negotiate those concerns in public, I think it's better to let the process work and see what kind of consensus we can develop," he said.
Goodlatte said last week that no pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants is needed, because as of now they aren't necessarily ruled out from green cards entirely.
"People have a pathway to citizenship right now: It's to abide by the immigration laws, and if they have a family relationship, if they have a job skill that allows them to do that, they can obtain citizenship," Goodlatte told NPR. "But simply someone who broke the law, came here, [to] say, 'I'll give you citizenship now,' that I don't think is going to happen."
Goodlatte made a similar point on Wednesday, saying he believes undocumented immigrants should be allowed to go through currently available channels, such as family-based visas through marriage, to receive green cards that would eventually allow them to become citizens. They could do the same if they were legalized through immigration reform, he said.
"Once you have that status, you can qualify like anyone else," Goodlatte said.
A number of House Republicans have, like Goodlatte, come out against a "special" pathway to citizenship as part of immigration reform. The argument is that allowing undocumented immigrants to become citizens through a special process could create an incentive for more people to enter the country without authorization, and would be unfair to those attempting to immigrate legally. Goodlatte said undocumented immigrants should instead be required to go through normal channels already in place and get at the "back of the line."
The idea of a "line" is problematic in some ways to immigration advocates -- many undocumented immigrants either have no option available at all, or one that could take decades -- but it's a common concept in reform proposals from both parties.
The most important issues in the definition, then, are whether undocumented immigrants should ever be allowed to become citizens, rather than becoming what advocates consider a permanent underclass that would be unable to vote, and whether the process should be reformed to make it easier to begin the naturalization process.
Goodlatte said undocumented immigrants should not be banned from ever becoming citizens, and that he was open to considering ways of making legalization somewhat easier for undocumented immigrants. That could be done by eliminating three- and 10-year bars that currently require people to go back to their native country and wait for years to re-enter legally, he said.
He declined to rule out some sort of separate visa for undocumented immigrants that wouldn't allow them to naturalize more quickly, but would by definition put them in a different category than other would-be green card holders.
"There's a broad spectrum between deportation and an easy, special pathway to citizenship to find a way to bring people out of the shadows and give them a legal status that would allow them to be better able to participate in our society," he said. "We should be focused there and recognizing as we do that there are millions of people who are not U.S. citizens who are in long lines, waiting to avail themselves of those opportunities, who have followed the legal process."
Most important, he said, is finding some sort of agreement through regular order in the House and Senate. That would mean that any bill should go through his committee, which handles immigration matters, and then to the House floor for a vote.
"We have a broken immigration system, and we should be working to try to solve all of it," he said. "But if we can't solve all of it, we should be solving as many parts of it as we can."