A top House conservative involved in bipartisan immigration negotiations said Wednesday that he supports a process that allows undocumented immigrants in the U.S. to ultimately become U.S. citizens.
Idaho Rep Raul Labrador told reporters "What I think should happen is anyone who is here illegally can come out of the shadows, become legalized in some way, have some legal status, and that status could lead to legal permanent residency and citizenship eventually -- but just the same as anybody else who falls into that category."
Labrador emphasized he didn't support "special treatment" for those 11 million in the country illegally and maintained he wasn't advocating a "pathway to citizenship." He said he didn't want to compare his approach to the bipartisan framework that the Senate is discussing, but he outlined a process that could in fact provide for citizenship.
This is another sign that Congress is moving closer to comprehensive immigration reform legislation.
Labrador's remarks are a shift from comments he made in early February when he insisted that undocumented immigrants in the U.S. illegally did not want citizenship, but wanted to be able to stay in the country legally. "They're not clamoring for it [citizenship]. It's only the activists here in Washington D.C. who keep clamoring for it."
The Idaho Republican, who declined to talk specifically about the proposal that the House bipartisan group is developing, said he's urging GOP colleagues to shift the emphasis to other major components of immigration reform.
"What I have told conservatives is we need to be open about what we do with the 11 million so we can get what we want on border security, on guest worker programs. That really should be the tone of our negotiations."
Other conservatives attending a House forum on Wednesday praised Sen. Rand Paul's speech on Tuesday on immigration reform, arguing it didn't allow a "special pathway" for people to become citizens. Rep Jeff Duncan, R-South Carolina, noted that Paul never said the word "citizenship."
While reserving judgment on the final details of Paul's plan, several members who represent the right flank of the GOP conference essentially endorsed Paul's approach that called for ensuring the borders are secure, while also backing a process that allows those already in the country illegally to stay and get some kind of legal status.
Florida Republican Rep Trey Radel noted there are "conservative arguments" for promoting immigration reform. He cited fiscal and national security reasons for identifying who is in the country and bringing those people "out from the shadows."
But Radel said there was also a "moral emotional argument -- we're not going to round up millions and millions of people-kids and grandmas and grandpas - and send them to wherever. It's not going to happen."
Labrador warned that the key issue that could prevent a final deal on immigration talks is coming up with a viable guest worker program. He argued that labor unions and some Senate Democrats "are fighting in the Senate to make the guest worker program so unwieldy and so expensive that no one will use it."
"There's no way a program - immigration reform without a guest worker program -- passes out of the House of Representatives," Labrador insisted.
Labrador also stressed that immigration reform was going to happen regardless of who won the 2012 presidential election. He recounted a conversation that he had with Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, during the time Ryan was on the GOP ticket as the vice presidential candidate. Ryan told him "'Raul be ready - right after the election - once we get done with the fiscal issues we're going to move onto immigration."'