Cantor Softens Stance on Immigration

Cantor reverses his position on 'DREAMers.'

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor embraces immigration reform at the American Enterprise Institute, Feb. 5, 2013.
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House Republicans signaled more flexibility on immigration reform Tuesday as leaders of the party embraced reforms that they have dismissed as too progressive in the past.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor announced during a speech at the American Enterprise Institute that he would support a path to citizenship for so-called DREAMers, undocumented immigrants who entered the country illegally as kids.

"Time to provide an opportunity for legal residence and citizenship for those who were brought to this country as children," Cantor said during his speech. Cantor opposed the DREAM Act when it was up for a vote in the House in 2010.

[CHARTS: What Immigrants Mean to the Economy]

"One of the great founding principles of our country was that children would not be punished for the mistakes of their parents," Cantor said. "It is time to provide an opportunity for legal residence and citizenship for those who were brought to this country as children and who know no other home."

Cantor's movement on the issue is becoming a common phenomenon among House Republicans who are aware of the changing demographics of the American electorate. In the 2012 election, President Barack Obama won more than 70 percent of the Latino vote.

"Majority Leader Cantor, according to news reports, wanted to give this speech in December, but he settled on giving it today, at a time when major figures in the Republican Party and the conservative movement are considering necessary adaptations to strategy, messaging and policy in a new electoral environment," says Matt Mackowiak, a GOP consultant.

[READ: Illegal Immigration Foes Dismayed by GOP Moves]

Cantor wouldn't specify whether he supported a path to citizenship for all of the 11 million undocumented immigrants already living in the country, but insisted that a bipartisan solution would need to be matched with stricter employment verification and border security policies.

Florida Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart says it is common knowledge among Republicans in Congress that the party must soften its rhetoric and stance on immigration to earn the Latino vote.

"Leadership in both parties has used immigration as a campaign tool," Diaz-Balart says. "It has worked well for Democrats, but has been an abysmal failure for Republicans."

Diaz-Balart says that for the first time in a decade, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have the appetite to negotiate on immigration reform. And while there are still ongoing conversations among his colleagues over how best to fix the "broken" immigration system, consensus is building. Diaz-Balart says helping kids who entered the country illegally is one of his top priorities.

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"These are good kids," Diaz-Balart says. "They are Americans without the paper."

Tuesday, the House of Representatives held its first immigration reform hearing of the 113th Congress. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia approached the hearing with a softer tone than his predecessor, Texas Republican Rep. Lamar Smith. While Goodlatte has a long history of being strongly opposed to any form of so-called amnesty for illegal immigrants, including those brought to the country as children, the hearing was void of some of the partisan fireworks of past immigration hearings.

"This debate is often emotionally charged," Goodlatte said in his opening remarks. "That is because it is not about abstract statistics and concepts, but rather about real people with real problems trying to provide a better life for their families. This holds true for U.S. citizens, for legal residents, and for those unlawfully residing in the U.S."

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