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Republican House leaders released their guidelines for overhauling the nation’s immigration system on January 30, drawing measured praise from reform supporters for opening the door to negotiations with Democrats that could lead to passage of a bill this year.

But the guidelines also set off a fiery debate among immigration advocates. On one side are those who are willing to settle for the GOP’s offer of legalization for undocumented immigrants, but no special pathway to citizenship. On the other are those who insist any immigration reform bill must ultimately include citizenship.

That debate is expected to grow louder as Republicans move from translating the guidelines into actual legislation that will need the support of both Republicans and Democrats to pass.

Democrats strongly support a pathway to citizenship for most undocumented immigrants, including those who came here as adults, and some have said they won’t support legislation that permanently bars undocumented immigrants from becoming citizens.

The standards represent the first concrete look at what GOP leaders are thinking as they begin their efforts to persuade rank-and-file House Republicans to take up immigration reform this year.

No legislation has been introduced by House leaders that tackles the divisive issue of what to do about immigrants living illegally in the United States.

The principles state undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally as children and who meet certain eligibility requirements should be able to become legal residents and citizens.

​However, for undocumented immigrants who as adults entered the United States illegally or overstayed visas, there should be no “special path to citizenship,” according to the principles. They could earn legal status and stay in the United States if they “admit their culpability, pass rigorous background checks, pay significant fines and back taxes, develop proficiency in English and American civics, and (are) able to support themselves and their families (without access to public benefits).”

The document also reasserts GOP leaders’ stance that they will not consider the comprehensive immigration-reform bill passed by the Senate in June. The Senate bill, which included a 13-year pathway to citizenship, stalled in the House.

Before legal status is granted to people who are in the country illegally, certain border and interior enforcement standards — which are not spelled out — would have to be met, the document states. In addition, visas and green cards should be given out based on the needs of U.S. employers, not based on whether visa seekers have family members living in the U.S.

The Republican guidelines offer an opportunity for young immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children to obtain legal status and citizenship as long as they meet certain eligibility standards, serve in the military or earn a college degree.

But the guidelines take a tougher stance against undocumented adult immigrants saying no special path to citizenship should be offered to people who broke immigration laws because “that would be unfair to those immigrants who played by the rules and harmful to promoting the rule of law.”

​Instead, undocumented immigrants would be able to live legally without fear of deportation if they met certain criteria, including passing background checks, paying fines and back taxes, learning English and being able to support themselves without public benefits. Criminals, gang members and sex offenders would not be eligible for the program.

The guidelines do not say whether undocumented immigrants who gained legal status would be barred from ever becoming citizens or could earn their way to citizenship through traditional channels, such as being sponsored by an employer or a relative who is a U.S. citizen.

Those who do have legal relatives, such as children over age 21 born in the U.S., would still have to wait for years or decades because of visa quotas. Even undocumented immigrants married to U.S. citizens wouldn’t be able to become citizens if they entered the country illegally under current rules that require them to return first to their home country and then bar them from returning for 10 years.

​​Under the Senate plan, undocumented immigrants would have to wait for 10 years after receiving provisional visas before they became eligible to apply for permanent residency. After three years as permanent residents, they would be eligible to apply for citizenship.

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