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Issa Backs Citizenship Pathway

Issa Backs Citizenship Pathway

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - February 6, 2013

House lawmakers struggling to gain support for a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants might have found an unlikely ally: Republican Rep. Darrell Issa.

The California conservative told RCP that providing a citizenship option in new legislation is what President Lincoln would have wanted.

“I think all of us Republicans know that we don’t want a class of residents that will never be offered an opportunity for citizenship,” he said. “We’re the party of Lincoln, and the party of Lincoln would not accept people living in our country and not being citizens, or not being given the opportunity to become citizens.”

As the powerful chairman of the House Oversight Committee, Issa is perhaps best known for being a critical and aggressive challenger of the Obama administration. He recently led a lengthy investigation into the Justice Department’s failed gun trafficking program known as “Fast and Furious,” and led the charge to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt of Congress. (The House passed a contempt citation over Holder’s failure to provide documents to congressional investigators, but the action did not lead to criminal charges because the president asserted executive privilege in the case.)

Issa also sits on the Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over immigration reform proposals. At the committee’s first hearing on reform Tuesday, Issa’s GOP colleagues sought a middle-ground solution between deporting most of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and providing them a way to earn citizenship. Many conservatives fear the latter would be tantamount to amnesty for those who have broken the law. Tuesday’s hearing highlighted the difficult divide between Republicans in the House and in the Senate, where lawmakers like Marco Rubio and John McCain have signed on to a citizenship pathway.

Providing the opportunity to achieve legal status rather than citizenship appears to be the most viable option in the lower chamber at this point. But Issa isn’t ready to settle for that.

“As we talk about who should remain and who should go, I think ultimately we have to be reasonable and realize we don’t want to have second-class citizens in our country,” he told RCP. “If someone’s a guest worker or a temporary resident, that’s fine. But if somebody’s going to spend the rest of their life in this country, I believe that we need to have a clear pathway to citizenship, and we shouldn’t hide that.”

But Texas Republican Rep. Blake Farenthold, also a Judiciary Committee member, characterized a citizenship pathway as a major “stumbling block” in the House. Even Republicans who support a pathway recognize the difficulty it faces in the lower chamber. Florida Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a prominent Cuban-born advocate for comprehensive immigration reform, told RCP that though she sees citizenship as the preferred goal, “I don’t think the perfect should be the enemy of the good. If we are only able to get legalization, I think that’s wonderful also because it allows people to stay here, work, pay taxes, pay their fines, and do everything they need to do. I’m in favor of citizenship path, but not against a legal pathway.”

Asked if legalization instead of citizenship would create a kind of underclass to which he had earlier referred, Issa said, “Ultimately, if you’re allowed to remain in this country permanently, in almost all cases, there should be a path to citizenship. That is what Abraham Lincoln would have said. That’s what the Republican Party stands for.”

Ros-Lehtinen told RCP that she and Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez will introduce a bill within a few weeks that resembles the failed 2010 DREAM Act, which would grant a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants’ children who attend American colleges or serve in the military. “We favor comprehensive reform, but wanted to make sure we work on the Dreamers as a stand-alone piece in case we’re not able to get the whole enchilada,” she said.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor made news this week by supporting some elements of the DREAM Act. House Speaker John Boehner declined to do likewise, saying he wants to "foster" bipartisan reform efforts but also telling reporters on Wednesday that it is "certainly worthy of consideration."

Issa voted against the DREAM Act in 2010. But he did support (failed) legislation expanding visas for immigrants who earn American college degrees in science, math, engineering or technology. This week, he announced he would reprise that legislation (known as the STEM Jobs Act), as well as the Fallen Heroes Family Act, which grants temporary legal status to the families of deceased active-duty service members, and the Criminal Alien Accountability Act, which would mandate sentencing for illegal immigrants who come back into the country after being deported for criminal activity. 

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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