By Roxan Tiron
The last time the U.S. Congress considered a broad revision to immigration laws was in 2007, when more than half of the House Republicans weren't even elected.
That lack of experience explains why House leaders are taking a slower approach than the Senate before engaging in a debate on an issue that could roil a party base divided on the notion of providing a path to citizenship to the 11 million undocumented residents in the U.S.
The leadership is hosting "listening sessions" in the office of House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy, a California Republican. With a wall-sized rendering of President George Washington's Delaware River crossing looming above, lawmakers gathered last month for a power-point presentation covering current immigration law and the government's various visa programs.
One of the most surprising takeaways for attendees was the fact that about 40 percent of undocumented immigrants overstayed their visas rather than illegally crossing the border, according to a leadership aide familiar with the meetings who asked not to be identified to discuss details.
"What I found is that for most people that's not an issue that they've dealt with, and it's very complicated," said Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican who's a member of a House bipartisan group working on an immigration rewrite proposal. "You have dozens of different visas, different categories, most of it broken."
While a bipartisan group of senators is expected to release an outline of a bill next week, the House is unlikely to take up legislation until June. A small group of Republican and Democratic House members are meeting privately to develop a set of principles for a proposal, although they are keeping their work private to prevent leaks from derailing it.
The listening sessions focus on the challenges that face companies and immigrants seeking work. Among the business sectors lobbying for a new immigration law are large agricultural interests and technology companies like Google Inc. and Facebook Inc.
Yet the motivation for action stems from the Nov. 6 election results.
Exit polls of voters showed President Barack Obama won 71 percent of Hispanics, the fastest growing electoral bloc. That translated to a 44-percentage-point advantage over Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who won just 27 percent of the Hispanic vote -- down from 31 percent for the party's presidential ticket in 2008, 44 percent in 2004 and 35 percent in 2000.
To become more competitive, the Republican National Committee and other leaders are urging their elected officials to engage in the immigration debate to demonstrate sensitivity on an issue important to Latinos.
Still, it's not as much of an electoral concern for the party's House caucus because their districts are more heavily white as a result of 2010 redistricting, a process dominated by Republican-held state legislatures.
The average district of a House Republican was 75 percent non-Hispanic white after redistricting and the 2012 elections, up from 73 percent before, according to David Wasserman, House editor for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
"House Republicans have done a remarkable job of sequestering Democrats into the minority" of House seats, Wasserman said. "In the process they've also reduced their own incentive to reach out to groups their party badly needs to do a better job of courting if it wants to stay relevant."
Unlike the Senate, where Republican members from such states as Texas and Arizona are accustomed to courting Hispanic voters, many House members rarely need to. Combined with the fact that about 125 of the 232 House Republicans, or 54 percent, were elected after the last major immigration debate in Congress, leadership concluded that an education effort had to come before action.
James Lankford, head of the Republican Policy Committee, said the listening sessions are not "designed to create some sort of consensus around an idea, they are designed to lay out the problems as we face them."
There have been two meetings, with about 50 members combined, and three more are planned. The focus ranges from border security to the need to attract talent in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, Lankford said. "Some people focus on family members not being able to get in, some people focus on the lottery system" for visas, he said.
The briefings are led by Virginia Republican Bob Goodlatte, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee; South Carolina Republican Trey Gowdy, who heads the panel's immigration subcommittee; and Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican.
The "big shift" among Republicans is that many now "believe that there should be some form of legalization" for undocumented immigrants, said Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute's office at the New York University School of Law.
Below that broad consensus, divisions remain.
Chishti said Republicans are split on whether to provide legal status or a path to citizenship, which Republican opponents label as "amnesty." More than 60 percent of Americans support providing citizenship, according to a Brookings Institution and Public Religion Research Institute poll released March 21. Among Republicans, 53 percent support that proposal, while 47 percent oppose it.
In the House, there's a faction that wants to tie U.S. residency to high-education degrees. And there are those who wouldn't support changes without a revised guest-worker program -- an issue only recently resolved among a group of senators.
Labor leaders are pressing for stricter limits on higher wages for low-skilled workers while the business community resists those requirements and wants more flexibility to meet demand. Labor and business leaders reached a tentative accord with a bipartisan group of senators on the issue March 29.
Right Not Fast
"There is a universal recognition that the system is absolutely broken," Diaz-Balart said in an interview. "The most important thing is not doing it fast, it's doing it right. We're trying to make sure that we have something that's reasonable, that's real, that fixes what's broken and that can get bipartisan support."
In addition to Diaz-Balart, the House negotiators include Republicans John Carter and Sam Johnson of Texas and Raul Labrador of Idaho, along with Democrats Zoe Lofgren and Xavier Becerra of California, Luis Gutierrez of Illinois and John Yarmuth of Kentucky.
"We've really resolved all of the truly contentious issues, so now it's a lot of detail work and some loose ends," Yarmuth said March 27 on MSNBC. The group is in agreement on how to ensure employers hire "only legal residents" and determining "who's legal and who's not." The group also has an understanding on the guest-worker program, he said.
Labrador is the group's barometer on how far Republicans aligned with the anti-tax Tea Party movement may go on the issue. He endorsed a plan by Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, another Tea Party ally, which called for giving legal status to undocumented immigrants after Congress verifies improved border security.
"That is something that many conservatives in the House will support," Labrador said. "It has to be something in my opinion that does not lead to a special pathway to citizenship but does allow the 11 million people that are here illegally to come out of the shadows and become legal."
House Democrats are more unified on providing undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship, according to Chishti of the Migration Policy Institute. That could force the Republican leadership to deliver more of its members to get a bill without such a path through the chamber.
Gutierrez, the lead Democratic negotiator in the House, last month signaled flexibility on the guest-worker issue.
"It is an issue that we need to resolve, it is a thorny issue" for Democrats, he told reporters at a March 19 breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. "You cannot fix our broken immigration system unless you figure out a way to supply the workforce needs."