A trio of three Republican dignitaries extolled the economic benefits of immigration reform Friday, but stopped short of calling for citizenship for immigrants for the country to reap those rewards.
Carlos Gutierrez, former Commerce Secretary in the George W. Bush administration, as well as former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder spent an hour at a National Press Club panel discussing why immigration makes economic and common sense.
But at a later news conference they declined to insist that immigration legislation include a guaranteed path to citizenship
"Legalization is a lot better than leaving 11 million folks in limbo," Gutierrez said. "There's been discussion that if you are legalized, will you have access to the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Those are things that have to be worked out."
"Once you are legal it's a start," he said.
House Republicans are preparing to release the fundamental principles they seek in their immigration proposal. They have refused to take up the Senate's comprehensive immigration bill.
A likely key difference between the Senate bill passed last summer and the House plan will be the issue of citizenship.
Some House members have been floating the possibility of providing legal status alone or with a future chance for immigrants to become a citizen in ways already allowed by law - through a family member or an employer.
The Senate bill has a 13-year plan for gaining citizenship. The House has not drafted its proposal on the legalization issue.
A recent Pew Research Center Hispanic Trends Project poll showed that Hispanics give more importance to living and working legally in the U.S. without a threat of deportation over having a new government plan for obtaining citizenship, by 55 percent to 35 percent.
Last week, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he would not back away from insisting that immigration reform legislation include details on a path to citizenship earned by paying taxes, learning English and meeting other requirements.
Gutierrez said there is a lot less of a divide on the citizenship versus legalization issue than most believe. The debate is more about whether government allows people to access the citizenship process as it exists today or at a set time period, he said.
Last year ended with many immigrant advocates pressuring House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, to take action on immigration with sit-ins at lawmakers' offices, protests and a 21½-day fast by three advocates staged largely at the National Mall.
The group "Fast For Families" said Friday they plan to take their protest on the road, including to Ohio.
Arturo Rodriguez, United Farm Workers president, said the group wants immigration reform that is humane and provides a clear pathway to citizenship.
"We do not accept that today's immigrants should be second-class citizens," said Eliseo Medina, chairman of SEIU immigration campaign and one of the activists who fasted last year.
The Republican trio - Bloomberg, Gutierrez and Snyder - said legalization offers a chance at a compromise on the issue.
"Six years ago no one was talking about legalization versus citizenship. It was citizenship versus deportation. The debate has shifted in a major way," said Randy Johnson, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, one of the groups that staged Friday's event.
"Whether it's legalization or citizenship, and citizenship may have to wait 13 or 20 years, I think that's a political call that will have to be made by the members on the Hill to try to get a deal done," Johnson said.
Other organizers were the Partnership for New American Economy, which is comprised of mayors, business leaders and governors and Republicans for Immigration Reform, a SuperPAC founded by Gutierrez and attorney Charlie Spies.