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Immigration reform: Amid GOP reservations, signs of flexibility

A hearing Tuesday offers a first look at how the GOP-led House might approach immigration reform, an issue that has vaulted to the top of Washington's agenda. Democrats were fairly pleased with what they saw.

By Staff writer / February 5, 2013

After delivering a policy speech on immigration reform at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, Tuesday, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., talks to Fiona Zhou, a graduate student in systems engineering at George Washington University originally from Shaoxing, China,

Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

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Washington

Republicans remain conflicted about reforming America’s immigration system, but judging from remarks by House majority leader Eric Cantor and the tone of the Republican-led House’s first hearing on immigration, they appear willing to join the immigration debate rather than try to short-circuit it. 

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In a speech at the conservative American Enterprise Institute on Tuesday, Mr. Cantor, the No. 2 Republican in the House, offered support for the broad contours of the DREAM Act, long-stalled legislation that would allow the children of undocumented immigrants a special path to legal status in the US – and eventually citizenship. 

Cantor, one of the party’s foremost conservatives, voted against the DREAM Act in 2010. 

“One of the great founding principles of our country was that children would not be punished for the mistakes of their parents,” he said Tuesday. “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.”

In the House Judiciary Committee, meanwhile, conservative lawmakers expressed concern about the federal government’s poor record on immigration enforcement. Many spoke of the 1986 reform law, which legalized many more undocumented people than lawmakers then had expected and which proved to be ineffective at stemming the tide of illegal entrants despite, for example, employer sanctions for immigration violations and new border-security measures. Some lawmakers blame that law for helping to create a situation that resulted in a renewed inflow of undocumented individuals, now estimated to number 11 million. 

But GOP lawmakers balanced their outrage at the Obama administration and at what they see as the US government’s lax enforcement of immigration laws with some hopeful notes. 

“In the minds of many, Mr. Chairman, the country got amnesty [in 1986] but is still waiting 25 years later on the border security and the employment verification,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy (R) of South Carolina, chairman of the Subcommittee on Immigration, addressing Judiciary chair Rep. Robert Goodlatte (R) of Virginia. “So here we are, back again, asking our fellow citizens to trust us. And many, despite ourselves, Mr. Chairman, remain open to legislative expressions of humanity and grace, but they will be watching skeptically to see if we are serious about enforcing the rule of law.”

That attitude was music to the ears of long-time immigration reform advocates such as Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D) of Illinois, who put his 20 years of seniority on the Financial Services Committee on hold to work on immigration legislation in the Judiciary Committee during this Congress. 

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