Citizenship or Legalization, GOP Immigration Plan Doesn't Bar Entry

GOP plan includes 'legalization,' but that might be good enough for now.

An immigration activist holds up a sign on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol during a rally on April 10, 2013, in Washington, D.C.

Republican leaders' immigration reform plan may include "legalization," though not necessarily citizenship, for undocumented immigrants.

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Listening to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, it would appear that just three words stand between Congress and a comprehensive immigration reform bill.

The debate over whether or not the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants get a "path to citizenship," is a major flash point between Republicans and Democrats, but members of the pro-immigrant community are optimistic about what they are hearing from top House Republicans.

[READ: The Republican Party's Impossible Immigration Balancing Act]

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., drew a line Wednesday on the issue, saying Democrats insist any plan includes "a path to citizenship."

"We're not a country that says do our work, but you can only have a limited legal status in our country," Pelosi said.

But as Republican leaders released their outline of immigration priorities at the annual House GOP retreat in Maryland Thursday, those three magic words weren't anywhere to to be found. The only exception to the rule is for DREAMers, immigrants who were brought over the border illegally as children.

And though on the surface both parties appear to be standing strong in their convictions and unwilling to bridge the divide, experts speculate it's justsemantics getting in the wayand the two parties aren't as far apart as they might first appear.

Under the House Republican plan, immigrants wouldn't be granted citizenship, but rather "legal status," which still allows them to apply for citizenship down the road. The bipartisan Senate bill, which passed in June of last year, though pilloried by conservatives for offering what they called amnesty, similarly required immigrants to wait at least 13 years for their "path to citizenship."

"No one in the Republican Party is proposing we close the door to citizenship. Give them a path to legal status and then if they want to become citizens, they can," says Alfonso Aguilar, the executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, a conservative advocacy group =working to curry favor with Latino voters.

Aguilar, a Puerto Rican-born advocate for the Republican Party, personally supports a path to citizenship, but says he advocates for the politics of the possible. As the chief of the U.S. Office of Citizenship in President George W. Bush's administration, he helped immigrants educate themselves about their legal rights. He says he learned there that what immigrants really needed was the chance to come out of the shadows whether that meant through legalization or citizenship.

Even as many members of the Republican Party recognize the GOP must overcome an image problem among Latino voters, there's an incentive problem. A small but influential faction within the party remains skeptical pushing immigration reform ahead of the 2014 midterm elections will do them any good. According to an analysis by the Cook Political Report, there are 108 districts where minority voters make up a majority of the electorate — Republicans represent just nine of them.

[ALSO: How Immigration Reform Could Still Happen in 2014]

But House Speaker John Boehner will need more than those nine lawmakers to vote in favor of comprehensive immigration reform in order to assure it's passage. That is why, GOP pundits say Boehner is staying away from the words "path to citizenship."

"This debate comes down to semantics," Aguilar says, adding that Democrats are the ones drawing a line in the sand over a couple of words.

In the 2012 presidential election, Obama won 71 percent of the Latino vote. The constituency helped him secure his victory in Florida, Colorado and Nevada.

"They are trying to milk the issue politically," Aguilar says. "[Democrats] are concerned that if Republicans look like they are dealing constructively with this issue, then it will be neutralized as a wedge issue and make Republicans competitive again."

Voto Latino President Maria Teresa Kumar, couldn't disagree more. Kumar argues that to voters in the Latino community, words matter.

Kumar, who was born in Bogota, Colombia, and raised in Califorina, works to register the voters in the Hispanic community and encourages them to participate in the electoral process. She says for the voters she interacts with, tone is critical.

"Falling short of citizenship gives Latinos who are American this sense that they are not safe in their own communities because they will always be questioned by their neighbors about how American they are," Kumar says.

Kumar acknowledges, however, that there is a growing divide in the Latino community over the question of citizenship. Many DREAMers are increasingly open to seeing a comprehensive immigration reform bill pass even if that means it does not include a guarantee of citizenship.

"They are negotiating for themselves without making Republicans do the hard work," Kumar says.

[MORE: Obama Heckled at Immigration Speech in San Francisco]

Mary Giovagnoli, director of the nonpartisan Immigration Policy Center, says it's important for all impassioned parties to remember there are many ways to put the immigration puzzle together.

"In some ways, legalization in itself can become a path to citizenship," Giovagnoli says. "Legalization can give you an opportunity to move into the process. The important thing is that we ensure that people who start down this path and meet the qualifications can become citizens. Otherwise you wind up with a sub class."

Giovagnoli says if House Republicans decide to embrace legalization, they will need to "surgically" fix some of the barriers that exist in the current immigration system. Currently, to obtain citizenship, an immigrant must get a green card and wait between 3 to 5 years before they can apply to become citizens. But there are only so many immigrants who are eligible each year. There are limits to who can attain a visa based off family needs, country of origin and skill set.

According to the Migration Policy Center, there are 4.4 million people waiting to obtain a visa.

Giovagnoli says Republicans in Congress will have to dramatically increase the number of visas available, but that eventually the immigrants could get on a path to citizenship just like any other immigrant who entered the country legally.

"If Republicans in Congress feel like they have to jump through hoops to please factions of the Republican Party, so be it. We have made badly written laws work well for people before," she says.

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