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White House says immigration plan is a backup

GOP pans draft that was revealed over weekend

President Obama spoke about immigration in Las Vegas in January. AP

WASHINGTON — A plan by President Obama for an overhaul of the immigration system would put illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship that could begin after about eight years and would require them to go to the back of the line behind legal applicants, according to a draft of the legislation that the White House has circulated within the administration.

On Wednesday, the White House sent copies of the draft to officials in government agencies that deal with immigration and border security, including the departments of State, Commerce, Homeland Security, Justice, and Health and Human Services, said an administration official who agreed to discuss the details only on the condition of anonymity.


The draft plan says none of the 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the country would be granted permanent resident status and given a document known as a green card until the earlier of two dates: either eight years after the bill is enacted or 30 days after visas have been given to everyone who applied legally.

The plan under consideration, which elaborates on principles that Obama unveiled several weeks ago, includes a shortened path to citizenship for young illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children, often referred to as Dreamers. In many cases, those young people could apply for green cards as soon as two years after the law was passed.

After receiving a green card, immigrants generally become eligible to become naturalized citizens after five years.

The disclosure of the plan, by USA Today on Saturday, set off a series of political recriminations and questions on Sunday about Obama’s promise to allow bipartisan congressional talks to take precedence. The furor also offered new evidence that Republicans could use the president’s direct involvement as a reason to reject a potential compromise.

In the face of the sharp Republican criticism of Obama’s plan, the White House insisted over the weekend that no decision had been made and that nothing had changed. Officials reasserted their support for the delicate negotiations on Capitol Hill. White House aides reached out to lawmakers in both parties on Saturday night to reassure them, officials said.


Denis McDonough, the president’s new chief of staff, said on Sunday that Obama remained committed to staying on the sidelines while a group of Republican and Democratic senators tries to reach an immigration agreement by the spring.

In his first appearances on Sunday talk shows as chief of staff, McDonough said the administration was preparing draft legislation only as a backup.

“We’ve not proposed anything to Capitol Hill yet,’’ he said on the ABC program ‘‘This Week.’’ “We’re going to be ready. We have developed each of these proposals so we have them in a position so that we can succeed.’’

His comments came after Republicans quickly condemned the reports of a new administration plan, calling it ‘‘dead on arrival’’ and ‘‘very counterproductive.’’

Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, issued a statement late Saturday calling the president’s reported legislation ‘‘half-baked and seriously flawed.’’ He said its approval ‘‘would actually make our immigration problems worse.’’ Rubio has been among the leading Republicans pushing for a comprehensive overhaul of the immigration process.

On Sunday, Representative Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, another Republican calling for immigration changes, said on ‘‘This Week’’ that the president’s efforts to develop his own legislation would undermine efforts on Capitol Hill and were taking ‘‘things in the wrong direction.’’


Aides to Obama have been working on immigration legislation for years in anticipation of a renewed push. McDonough did not confirm which specific proposals would be in the president’s bill if he presented one to Congress, but said that if lawmakers could not reach an agreement, everyone would find out.

Rubio ‘‘says it’s dead on arrival if proposed,’’ McDonough said. ‘‘Well, let’s make sure that it doesn’t have to be proposed.’’

The length of the path to citizenship for illegal immigrants has become a highly delicate issue in the fast-moving debate over immigration overhaul. Republicans who are part of a bipartisan group of senators drafting legislation have said they are looking for a longer path for illegal immigrants, to make it clear they are not jumping the line or being rewarded for violating the law to come to the United States.

Those Republicans, led by Rubio, are also insisting that the path to citizenship must hinge on advances in border security.

There is no mention of any border enforcement trigger in the versions of the plan that the White House circulated on Wednesday.

But increased border enforcement is part of the principles for comprehensive immigration legislation that Obama has outlined in speeches in recent weeks.