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."

Earlier on HuffPost:

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  • The Naturalization Act of 1790

    The Naturalization Act of 1790 was our country's first set of laws dealing with citizenship. Applicants had to be "<a href="http://rs6.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llsl&fileName=001/llsl001.db&recNum=226 " target="_hplink">a free white person</a>" of "good moral character." This excluded indentured servants and slaves. Good moral character was substantiated by establishing residence for at least one year in the state from where he was applying, and at least two years of residence in the country. The Naturalization Act of 1795 would extend that requirement to five years, and is still standard today.

  • The Fourteenth Amendment, 1868

    A Reconstruction Amendment that was added to the U.S. Constitution following the Civil War, the Citizenship Clause of the 14th Amendment establishes for the first time that children born on U.S. soil would be conferred U.S. citizenship regardless of their parent's citizenship status, race, or place of birth. Last year, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) introduced the <a href="http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/hr140 " target="_hplink">Birthright Citizenship Act of 2011</a> to Congress, and challenged this. The bill would require that at least one parent be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident for a child to be granted citizenship. According to the <a href="http://www.opencongress.org/bill/112-h140/text " target="_hplink">bill's text</a>, the Birthright Citizenship Act of 2011 would amend the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, and "clarify those classes of individuals born in the United States who are nationals and citizens of the United States at birth." Prior to this, Rep. Nathan Deal (R-GA) <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/05/26/nathan-deal-georgia-lawma_n_207485.html " target="_hplink">introduced</a> a similar <a href="http://www.opencongress.org/bill/111-h1868/show" target="_hplink">bill</a> in 2009.

  • The Naturalization Act of 1870

    The Naturalization Act of 1870<a href="http://thepoliticsofimmigration.org/pages/chronology.htm " target="_hplink"> explicitly extended</a> naturalization laws to "aliens of African nativity and persons of African descent." This meant that for the first time, African-American children would be conferred citizenship upon birth. Asian immigrants and other people of color are excluded per the Naturalization Acts of 1790 and 1795.

  • The Page Act of 1875

    Named after Republican Representative Horace F. Page, this is the first U.S. federal immigration law to explicitly prohibit the immigration of a particular group: persons of Asian descent. Primarily meant to limit Chinese immigrant labor and prostitution, the Page Act prohibited the immigration of: (1) contracted labor from "China, Japan, or any Oriental country" that was not "free and voluntary," (2) Chinese prostitution and (3) criminals and women who would engage in prostitution. Ultimately, the <a href="http://www.uchastings.edu/racism-race/pageact.html " target="_hplink">Page Act</a> severely <a href="http://immigration-online.org/228-page-act-united-states-1875.html " target="_hplink">restricted</a> the immigration of Asian women. Only 136 of the the nearly 40,000 Chinese immigrants who arrived in the months before the bill's enforcement were women. And, it would pave the way for the Chinese Exclusion Act. In this picture, Michael Lin, chair of the 1882 Project, a coalition of rights groups seeking a statement of regret over that year's Chinese Exclusion Act, speaks on May 26, 2011 in Washington, DC, at the US House of Representatives in front of a reproduction of a 19th-century sign that aimed at rousing up sentiment against Chinese Americans. Lawmakers introduced a bill that would offer an official statement of regret for the act, which banned further immigration of Chinese to the United States and ended citizenship rights for ethnic Chinese. (AFP PHOTO/SHAUN TANDON).

  • The Chinese Exclusion Act, 1882

    Signed by President Chester A. Arthur, the <a href="http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/resources/archives/seven/chinxact.htm " target="_hplink">Chinese Exclusion Act</a> was the first federal immigration law to prohibit immigration on the basis of race. The bill barred all Chinese laborers, skilled and unskilled, from immigrating to the U.S. for ten years. It was made permanent by 1903, and was not lifted until the 1943 Magnuson Act. The 1898 Supreme Court <a href="http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu/immigration/exclusion.html " target="_hplink">decision</a> in <em>United States v. Wong Kim Ark</em> finally extended naturalization laws to persons of Chinese descent by ruling that anyone born in the United States was indeed a U.S. citizen. This editorial cartoon from 1882 shows a Chinese man being excluded from entry to the "Golden Gate of Liberty." The sign next to the iron door reads, "Notice--Communist, Nihilist, Socialist, Fenian & Hoodlum welcome. But no admittance to Chinamen." At the bottom, the caption reads, "THE ONLY ONE BARRED OUT. Enlightened American Statesman--'We must draw the line <em>somewhere</em>, you know.'" (Image Source: Frank Leslie's illustrated newspaper, vol. 54 (1882 April 1), p. 96. [Public domain], via <a href="http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_only_one_barred_out_cph.3b48680.jpg" target="_hplink">Wikimedia Commons</a>).

  • The Naturalization Act of 1906

    The Naturalization Act of 1906 further <a href="http://www.understandingrace.org/history/gov/eastern_southern_immigration.html" target="_hplink">defined</a> the naturalization process: the ability to speak English was made a <a href="http://www.enotes.com/topic/Naturalization_Act_of_1906" target="_hplink">requisite</a> for immigrants to adjust their status.

  • The Immigration Act of 1924

    U.S. President Coolidge signed this U.S. federal <a href="http://history.state.gov/milestones/1921-1936/ImmigrationAct " target="_hplink">bill</a> into law. It capped the number of immigrants who could be admitted entry to the U.S. and barred immigration of persons who were not eligible for naturalization. And, as the Naturalization Act of 1790 required, an immigrant had to be white in order to naturalize. The quotas varied by country. Image Source: Flickr Creative Commons, <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/nycmarines/6306315902/" target="_hplink">NYCMarines</a>.

  • The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (The McCarran-Walter Act)

    The <a href="https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&q=cache:zwaVG82lZisJ:www-rohan.sdsu.edu/dept/polsciwb/brianl/docs/1952McCarranWaltersAct.pdf+&hl=en&gl=us&pid=bl&srcid=ADGEESjEwx76FIBTixZAfyncZz-1CSuSeciv5qB6vvWTrUfW58XRpXq8zkpnI57XSuuG5Bu-WSySGbEhxYvZxP7y6qDQuOsDhgDa6qUqUaJ8F4imTzKJsVtppHc_-eew2dK6vGhoIUZs&sig=AHIEtbTNQ5GFiNMVS-xyThq8VVSj_gG9KA " target="_hplink">McCarran-Walter Act</a> kept up the controversial Immigration Act of 1924, but <a href="http://history.state.gov/milestones/1945-1952/ImmigrationAct" target="_hplink">formally</a> ended Asian exclusion.

  • Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

    When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, it <a href="http://library.uwb.edu/guides/USimmigration/1965_immigration_and_nationality_act.html" target="_hplink">abolished</a> the quota system that favored immigration from Europe and limited immigration from Asia and South America.

  • Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996

    The 1996 <a href="http://www.uscis.gov/ilink/docView/PUBLAW/HTML/PUBLAW/0-0-0-10948.html " target="_hplink">Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act</a> (IIRIRA) is a piece of legislation that <a href="http://library.uwb.edu/guides/usimmigration/1996_illegal_immigration_reform_and_immigrant_responsibility_act.html " target="_hplink">defined</a> an array of issues to do with legal and illegal immigration -- from outlining how border patrol agents should administer visa processing, to the minutiae of how to handle deportation proceedings -- IIRIRA established enforcement and patrolling practices.