House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said he backs legal residence and citizenship for people brought to the U.S. illegally as children while Congress held its first hearing this year on rewriting immigration law.
The Virginia Republican announced his change of position as President Barack Obama and bipartisan groups in Congress work on principles for an immigration overhaul.
“A good place to start is with the kids,” Cantor said in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington group that favors smaller government. “One of the great founding principles of our country was that children would not be punished for the mistakes of their parents.”
“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,” he said.
Cantor was among 160 House Republicans who voted against such legislation in 2010 when it passed the House, then controlled by Democrats. That measure, known as the Dream Act, died in the Senate.
Cantor said he was “pleased” that the discussions in Congress “make border security, employment verification and creating a workable guest worker program an immediate priority.” He said it is “the right thing to do for our families, for our security, and for our economy.”
House Republicans were weakened by Obama’s November re-election and Democratic gains in the House and Senate. Obama campaigned on a pledge to seek a rewrite of immigration laws and touted the Dream Act. He won 71 percent of Hispanic votes in the election, leading Republicans to re-examine their stance on immigration.
The 2010 legislation would have provided a path to citizenship for children of undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. before age 16, stayed at least five years and earned a college degree or served in the military.
Cantor announced his stance on the Dream Act as fellow House Republicans at a Judiciary Committee hearing argued against a Democratic proposal for a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., including adults.
Idaho Republican Raul Labrador, a member of a bipartisan group of House members trying to craft an immigration measure, said legalized status short of citizenship is a more practical and politically achievable goal in the Republican-run House.
Labrador, a former immigration lawyer, said that among his clients, “not very many people told me ‘I want to be a citizen, I have to be a citizen.’” Still, he said House Republicans may be able to build a consensus around allowing citizenship to those who came to the U.S. as children.
“I want to treat those kids fairly who came here through no fault of their own,” Labrador told reporters. “They are now either in the military or in college, that are doing the right things, that are abiding by the law.”
Labrador, who became a House member in 2011, said he wouldn’t have supported the 2010 Dream Act written by Democrats because it provided “too many exceptions.”
California Republican Darrell Issa said there is “widespread support for finding some solution to those who were ultimately hurt by a broken system.”
Congress must craft a statute that will make the proper distinction because “15-year-olds come over the border from Guatemala every day,” Issa said. “Are they children under the Dream Act or are they simply young illegal immigrants?”
South Carolina Republican Trey Gowdy, chairman of the panel’s immigration subcommittee, said when Congress rewrote immigration law in 1986 it didn’t ensure effective enforcement against illegal immigration and gave amnesty to millions of undocumented people in the country at the time.
“We have traveled this road before,” he said. “In 1986 we are told that immigration was settled once and for all. The country got amnesty but is still waiting 35 years later for border security and employer verification.”
“The stumbling block for everybody is the pathway to citizenship,” Texas Republican Blake Farenthold said at the hearing.
Asked about Cantor’s speech, Farenthold said citizenship for people who were brought to the country as children is “a whole lot easier than the bigger question” of giving the population of undocumented immigrants a pathway to that status.
Republican opposition “stems from not wanting to reward folks who broke the law, and you can’t hold a child or toddler accountable for what their parents do,” Farenthold said in an interview. “That’s easier to find common ground on.”
Today, Obama sought to rally business support for his immigration proposals at a White House meeting with a dozen chief executive officers including Goldman Sachs Group Inc.’s Lloyd Blankfein and Yahoo! Inc.’s Marissa Mayer.
Obama is pushing Congress to act by mid-year on immigration legislation that would include a path to citizenship for many of the undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
“I couldn’t think of a better topic that will galvanize a lot of the resources necessary in the country to improve the competitive effectiveness of U.S. business,” Motorola Solutions Inc. Chief Executive Officer Greg Brown said as he headed into the meeting.