Republican Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.)… (Alex Wong, Getty Images )
WASHINGTON — Even as Republicans in the House and Senate begin efforts to pass narrow immigration bills in the lame-duck session, closed-door negotiations have begun over how to accomplish a much broader package of immigration reforms next year.
Three Republican senators introduced an alternative to the Dream Act on Tuesday that would give legal status to young immigrants brought to the U.S. unlawfully as children.
Later this week, the House is expected to vote on a bill that would increase the number of visas for technology jobs, while reducing other legal immigration.
But these efforts are unlikely to become law and amount to little more than political showboating.
In the background, however, a group of House members is preparing to reconvene after two years of inaction. The bipartisan group includes Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles) and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.). Its members drafted parts of immigration legislation as recently as 2010, but had disbanded because of strong political head winds.
The House Republican leadership has tacitly blessed the effort. Republican members have been told that although House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) can't guarantee he will bring an agreement to a vote in the next Congress, the leadership won't stand in the way of the negotiations.
"There are confidential discussions that are occurring," said Lofgren, who participated in closed-door legislative drafting sessions in 2007 and 2009. "If I talked about them, they wouldn't be confidential." She said she was "cautiously optimistic" about the chances for a broad immigration bill coming to a vote next year.
But at the moment, the two camps are far apart. Republicans are reluctant to support a path to citizenship for immigrants here illegally. On Wednesday, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus will lay out what is essentially the Democratic leadership's framework for the legislation, which includes steps to keep families together, create a legal status for a majority of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, and create a special avenue to citizenship for young immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children.
"Piecemeal parts are better than nothing but [don't] solve the overall problem," said Diaz-Balart, who says he has had dozens of conversations with Democrats and Republicans about how to push a comprehensive immigration bill through the GOP-controlled House.
"We have a very narrow window of opportunity for that to happen," said Diaz-Balart, who would not confirm that he was part of the closed-door group. Diaz-Balart thinks any immigration bill would have to be passed in 2013 — before the campaign frenzy of the midterm election begins.
Exit polls from the Nov. 6 election showed widespread disenchantment with the GOP among Latino voters. Since then, some Republicans have indicated that they would be willing to discuss a more comprehensive package of immigration bills.
Retiring Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) introduced the Achieve Act on Tuesday. The bill, also sponsored by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), appeared to be an attempt to take some heat off Republicans on immigration.
In a news conference, Hutchison said she believed it would be better to tackle small pieces of immigration reform one at a time because agreement on a large package had proven too difficult.
Fewer young immigrants would qualify under her proposal than would have been eligible under the Dream Act. Unlike the Dream Act, the GOP bill would not guarantee a pathway to citizenship.
Under the Republican proposal, applicants who were brought to the U.S. before age 14 could apply for student visas if they are under 29 and enrolled in a college-degree program in the U.S. Applicants under 32 would qualify if they already held a degree from an American college.
After college graduation, immigrants could apply for work visas that would be renewable every four years for the rest of their lives. Unlike the Dream Act, the bill doesn't guarantee permanent residency. If an employer or a family member sponsored them, they could get in line for a green card and eventually apply for citizenship.
Hutchison said the bill was an attempt to "get the ball rolling" to create a permanent, legal solution for young immigrants brought here by their parents.
"We think the best thing that we can do to utilize their talents and the education they have received is to give them a legal status," Hutchison said at a news conference in the Capitol.
But Democrats plan to block the bill from coming to a vote.
"The Achieve Act doesn't achieve the dream of young people who only know America as their home and want a chance to earn their way to permanent residency," said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).