Goodlatte Open to Citizenship for Undocumented Youth

A key House Republican in the debate over revising immigration policy said he would consider offering some young people brought illegally to the U.S. as children a chance to become citizens.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte made the comments at a town hall meeting last night in Lynchburg, Virginia, following a teary plea from a 16-year-old high school student whose parents are undocumented immigrants.

“People like you should be addressed,” Goodlatte told Dulce Elias, who said she came to the U.S. from Mexico as a 3-year-old. “Maybe for someone like you,” legislation “could include a path to citizenship,” he said.

The comments by Goodlatte, who opposes the citizenship path for the U.S.’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants outlined in a bill the Democratic-controlled Senate passed on a 68-32 vote last week, signals his flexibility on the issue as his committee continues to draft its own versions of immigration legislation.

House Republicans, the chamber’s majority, are to meet July 10 in Washington after lawmakers return from their week-long July 4th recess to discuss the topic.

Some national Republican leaders have said the party needs to help pass a comprehensive approach to immigration policy that addresses the citizenship issue to win back some support from Hispanic voters. That fast-growing bloc supported Democratic President Barack Obama in last November’s election, 71 percent to 29 percent, over Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who had called on undocumented immigrants to self-deport.

‘Serious Problem’

“We are very serious about addressing this issue,” Goodlatte said in an interview before the town hall meeting. “We have a very serious problem with immigration.”

His response to Elias suggested possible support for some version of the so-called Dream Act, which called for a path to citizenship for those undocumented immigrants who were children when they were brought to the U.S. and had been in the country for at least five years, among other requirements.

After Obama failed to persuade Congress to pass that measure, he issued an order last year that said the government would no longer deport those who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children and met various requirements, including having graduated from high school, were in college or have been honorably discharged from the military. The House last month approved cutting off funding for the program, with Goodlatte backing the move.

Republican Senators

The Dream Act provisions are part of the Senate bill. Goodlatte has joined House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, in saying that legislation is dead on arrival in their chamber. Backers of the Senate measure included 14 Republicans, who broke with the 32 other members of their caucus who voted against it.

Along with its citizenship provisions, the bill would direct $46.3 billion toward securing the frontier with Mexico -- the costliest border-security plan ever for the U.S. Also, all employers would have to check workers’ legal status with an e-verify system, and a visa entry and exit system would be required at all airports and seaports. Those provisions would have to be in place before any undocumented immigrant could gain permanent legal status, known as a green card.

“We’re not going to take up the Senate bill in the House,” Goodlatte, 60, told the more than 100 people who filled a room for his town hall gathering at the Lynchburg Public Library, part of the district he has represented since 1993. “We should write our own bills.”

Other Concerns

Goodlatte began the almost two-hour session -- double its scheduled length -- with extensive comments on immigration and why enforcement of the border and making sure visitors don’t overstay their visas need to be the top priority in any change of policy. Once he began taking audience questions, though, many of the speakers focused on more parochial issues, such as problems with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Goodlatte, as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has rejected the all-encompassing Senate approach in favor of enacting several different measures. His panel already has voted to create a farm guest-worker program, strengthen enforcement of immigration laws, expand an electronic-verification program and provide visas for high-skilled foreign workers.

The panel hasn’t acted on providing legal status for undocumented immigrants, which many Republicans in Congress oppose as “amnesty” for those who broke the law in entering the country.

Tea Party Letter

Ann Becker, president of the Cincinnati chapter of the anti-tax Tea Party, sent a letter to Boehner yesterday expressing her group’s opposition to the Senate bill and calling on the House to concentrate solely on border security.

“This is a line in the sand for me,” Becker said in a statement.

Goodlatte heard similar sentiments from many of his constituents.

“If we keep on having unlimited immigration from the Third World, we will become a Third World country,” said Stuart Jones, an engineer from Lynchburg. “First secure the border. Then we can talk.”

Representing the other side in the debate, the Charlottesville, Virginia-based advocacy group Organize Virginia brought more than 20 people to the meeting to support a citizenship path for the undocumented.

“What happens to those who have been here all their lives,” asked Elias, a resident of Harrisonburg, in her comments to the congressman. “Why not a pathway to citizenship? I love it here. This is my country.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Jonathan D. Salant in Lynchburg, Virginia, at jsalant@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at jcummings21@bloomberg.net.

Press spacebar to pause and continue. Press esc to stop.

Bloomberg reserves the right to remove comments but is under no obligation to do so, or to explain individual moderation decisions.

Please enable JavaScript to view the comments powered by Disqus.