AP image of the U.S. Capitol
CAMBRIDGE, Md. (USA TODAY) - House Republican leaders on Thursday will unveil guiding principles for possible legislation to overhaul the nation's immigration laws on such things as securing the border and whether to legalize up to 12 million people living in the U.S. illegally.
"This problem's been around for at least the last 15 years. It's been turned into a political football, I think it's unfair. So I think it's time to deal with it," House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Thursday. "But how we deal with it is critically important."
House Republicans are huddled here for their three-day annual retreat. House GOP leaders have been working on general principles, not legislation, that they are scheduled to discuss with the rank-and-file Thursday afternoon at a session.
Boehner has been up front that Republicans continue to favor a step-by-step approach vs. one comprehensive piece of legislation akin to what the Democratic-controlled Senate approved last year. The Senate bill includes a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.
He also said House Republicans maintain that securing the U.S. border is a top priority.
Boehner said Republicans will take a "common sense, step-by-step manner that helps our members understand the bite-sized pieces and helps our constituents build more confidence that what we are doing make sense."
The most contentious issue among Republicans is how to address the status of undocumented immigrants. Boehner did not offer specifics on how leaders are seeking to move forward, noting that they need to hear from their members first before making a final decision.
On the eve of Thursday's GOP retreat, House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., laid out how undocumented immigrants could reach citizenship.
Ryan told MSNBC that undocumented immigrants could immediately qualify for a "probationary status" and that the government would then have an undetermined amount of time to reach certain security benchmarks, including stronger border security and enhanced interior immigration enforcement.
If those benchmarks are met, then the undocumented immigrants could qualify for a more permanent legal work permit, allowing them to live and work in the country without fear of deportation.
At that point, only those who can qualify for already-existing channels of legal immigration - meaning they're related to a U.S. citizen or are sponsored for a green card by their employer - could get on the road to citizenship, he said.
Under the Senate plan, the vast majority of the nation's undocumented immigrants can apply for U.S. citizenship. It would take them 13 years and they would have to clear several hurdles, including paying fines, back taxes and maintaining a clean criminal record. But they could then apply for citizenship.
Ryan criticized the Senate proposal as a "special pathway to citizenship" that is unfair to people around the world who have been waiting years to apply and legally enter the USA.
"If you want to get in line to get a green card like any other immigrant, you can do that," Ryan said. "You just have to get at the back of the line so that we preference that legal immigrant who did things right in the first place."
Democrats have long insisted that they could not negotiate with the House if it presented a plan that forever barred undocumented immigrants from attaining U.S. citizenship. With the new GOP principles at least providing access to citizenship for many undocumented immigrants, Democrats said it was something they could work with.
"Nobody that I hear from in Congress is talking about immediate citizenship for everyone or mass deportation for everyone," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., who has led immigration efforts for Democrats for years.
"We can find common ground that allows millions of the undocumented to eventually apply for citizenship, legalizes millions who are working and contributing to the country, and puts our economy, our security, and the legality of America's workforce on solid ground."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told reporters that Boehner has informed her of their intent to put out some guiding principles.
"We'll see what it is, but I believe it is a good-faith effort to find common ground. And we look forward to seeing what they are," Pelosi said.
However, she said any bill that does not ultimately include a path to citizenship is unlikely to garner much support from Democrats. "We need to have that path."