CAMBRIDGE, Md. — A Republican blueprint for immigration reform offers legalization for some of the nation's 11 million people who are in the country illegally, but no special pathway to citizenship except in the cases of children brought here by their parents, according to a draft presented Thursday to lawmakers by party leadership.
The much-anticipated blueprint, while short on specifics, would offer legal status to immigrants as long as they admitted to wrongdoing, paid fines and taxes, submitted to a criminal background check and demonstrated a mastery of English and civics.
Those steps would come only after measures were taken to secure borders, according to the plan.
Immigrants brought to the country illegally as children — so-called Dreamers — would be allowed to apply for legal residence and citizenship, the document says.
The one-page draft, the culmination of weeks of internal party debate, says there should be a zero-tolerance policy for immigration law violators once reform is enacted and calls for stripping the presidential power to use discretion when deciding whom to deport.
The plan's lack of a special pathway to citizenship for most of the 11 million drew fire from some Democrats, unions and Latino organizations.
Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, described the draft as a "flimsy document." Laura W. Murphy, director of the Washington legislative office for the American Civil Liberties Union, said that a plan to legalize without a meaningful road to citizenship would create a "legal purgatory" for immigrants.
But many Republicans feel that immigrants who cross the borders unlawfully or overstay their visas should use existing procedures to apply for permanent residence and citizenship, rather than being given a special process that would effectively give them priority over immigrants who arrived legally. A "special path to citizenship," the document said, "would be unfair to those immigrants who have played by the rules and harmful to promoting the rule of law."
The issue has deeply divided the party, with many conservatives opposed to pursuing any reform. Others say the GOP must tackle the issue to reach out to Latino voters, who have increasingly turned to the Democratic Party.
House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) presented the so-called principles document to his rank-and-file members, who have gathered at a resort hotel on the banks of the frozen Chesapeake Bay for a policy and strategy retreat.
"It's important to act on immigration reform because we're focused on jobs and economic growth, and this about jobs and growth," he said, according to a source in the room for the presentation.
But Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a leading Republican critic of immigration reform, delivered a 30-page memo to the entire House GOP caucus, warning against immigration reform.
"Republicans must end the lawlessness — not surrender to it — and they must defend the legitimate interests of millions of struggling American workers," Sessions wrote.
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington that is influential among House conservatives, vowed to fight any plan that grants legal status. "We are warning against including any amnesty or grant of legal status to someone who is in the country illegally," Derrick D. Morgan, the head of domestic and economic policy research, said in an interview.
Republicans hope to narrow their internal differences and introduce legislation this year. Boehner said the House would pursue a "step by step" approach to reform, rather than adopt the comprehensive legislation passed by the Senate last year.
But any immigration bills probably wouldn't come up until June, when most of the congressional primaries are over. This would protect Republican incumbents, who are facing challenges from the right, from having to make a tough vote.
If House Republicans pass bills based on the newly released principles, it would put Democrats in a position of having to decide whether to reject the more scaled-down approach or accept it as preferable to no action at all.
Boehner, speaking to the Republicans on Thursday, said the new standards "are as far as we are willing to go."