The House of Representatives will approach immigration reform through a series of small bills, rather than as a comprehensive package like the one the Senate is considering.
The Republican leader of the House judiciary committee said he will take “a step-by-step approach”. This could spell trouble for the “big enchilada” of immigration reform: the proposal to give the 11m undocumented immigrants in the US a “pathway to citizenship”, which many conservative lawmakers view as rewarding criminals.
Breaking the reforms up into smaller chunks would enable lawmakers to pass parts they like – such as border enforcement and tougher employment verification measures – while stopping the other components in their tracks.
“By taking a fine-tooth comb through each of the individual issues within the larger immigration debate, it will help us get a better bill that will benefit Americans and provide a workable immigration system,” said Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House judiciary committee.
Republicans will introduce the first two pieces of legislation this week, he said. One bill would set up an agricultural guest-worker programme that would allow as many as 500,000 workers to be employed in the US for as long as 18 months, while the other would strengthen the employment verification system for businesses that hire immigrants.
The move appears partly aimed at circumventing the group of House lawmakers responsible for drafting a bipartisan deal, which the Senate has already done.
The Senate’s judiciary committee started hearings on that chamber’s 844-page draft bill last Friday.
However, Mr Goodlatte said the judiciary committee’s moves did not mean the lower chamber could not consider a comprehensive package of legislation, adding that no decisions had been made on how to mark up these bills or the expected bipartisan deal.
“No one should take the limited bills that we’re introducing here this week to be in any way an indication of our overall interest in solving all of the various aspects of immigration reform that are before the House and the Senate,” Mr Goodlatte told reporters on Thursday. “We’re not viewing anything we introduce as a final product.”
Mr Goodlatte does not support giving unauthorised immigrants a pathway to citizenship, but instead thinks they could just be given legal status.
While this view is shared by many conservatives in the House, it is at odds with the Senate bill and also with key lawmakers including Raul Labrador, a Puerto Rican-born congressman who sits on the judiciary committee and is also a crucial member of the House’s immigration group.
That group is understood to have agreed to create a system where all unauthorised immigrants would be granted a legal, temporary status that would enable them to apply for legal permanent residence and for American citizenship – similar to the pathway laid out in the Senate bill.
Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a group that supports immigration reform, accused Mr Goodlatte of trying to scupper the process by introducing the kinds of “partisan piecemeal measures” that went nowhere in the last Congress.
The move would make it hard for Republican leaders in the House to get the bill through the lower chamber, Mr Sharry said, “and it makes it easier for opponents of broad reform to oppose comprehensive reform while claiming they support something”.
A new poll published on Thursday found 67 per cent of Republican respondents said they supported the Senate’s proposed immigration reforms, with just under three-quarters of Americans overall saying they supported the bill.
The survey was commissioned by the fiscally conservative Americans for Tax Reform, Michael Bloomberg’s Partnership for a New American Economy, and immigration reform proponents at the National Immigration Forum Action Fund.
Get alerts on US immigration when a new story is published