By Paul C. Barton, Gannett Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON- For the Tennessee congressional delegation, the idea of giving 11 million to 12 million illegal aliens a path to U.S. citizenship remains a political question stamped "handle with care."
While it lies at the core of the immigration reform proposals unveiled over the past week by President Barack Obama and a bipartisan group of eight senators, the idea remains divisive for interest groups and politicians alike, especially those who don't want to be seen as rewarding illegal behavior with glorified amnesty.
Most path-to-citizenship proposals involve encouraging illegal immigrants to come out of hiding by setting forth a mix of steps they could follow to first obtain permanent legal residence and later full citizenship. The steps would involve such things as submitting to background and security checks, paying a series of fines, fees and taxes, demonstrating a solid work history and learning English and civics.
Those embarking on the path would have to line up behind those already legally in the country and seeking citizenship.
The senators' proposal states: "Our purpose is to ensure that no one who has violated America's immigration laws will receive preferential treatment as they relate to those individuals who have complied with the law."
And many lawmakers, especially Republicans, want a guarantee of secure U.S. borders before any illegal immigrants are allowed to complete the path.
Groups such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform still denounce it as disguised amnesty but influential business groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers consider a path to citizenship essential to any immigration reform package.
"We think it's tremendously important that immigration reform be bipartisan and comprehensive. We want all ideas on the table. We think it's important to be creative and not destructive," said Matt Lavoie, NAM spokesman.
The Tennessee Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which often takes its cues from groups such as the U.S. Chamber and NAM, is watching closely.
"Obviously we are concerned with immigration reform. We want to be able to hire people legally," said chamber spokesman Wayne Scharber.
Tennessee lawmakers, meanwhile, are cautious in commenting on developments of the past week if they comment at all.
Spokesmen for Reps. Diane Black, R-Gallatin, and Scott DesJarlais, R-Jasper, say those members are waiting to see the wording of actual legislation. And the office of Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Frog Jump, did not return e-mails and phone calls concerning the issue.
The state's senior senator, Republican Lamar Alexander, while not a member of the bipartisan Senate group, said he was eager for progress.
"Conservatives should be leading the charge to create a legal immigration system, and I'm glad to see senators of both parties working to do that," Alexander said in a statement.
"This problem can only be solved by the president and Congress, not by states and local communities. Legislation will be ready by the end of March â€" it should go through the committees, and the details will make the difference. Fundamentally, I want, and I believe most Tennesseans want, a legal immigration system that supports the rule of law and helps new citizens learn English, learn about our country and contribute to our society."
Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Brentwood, said in an interview with MSNBC she awaits a report from a working group of House members to compare with the proposals of Obama and the "Gang of Eight" in the Senate.
"I like the fact it's gone from being a back-burner issue to a front-burner issue," she said, adding, "There are many of us that have said for years this needs to be fixed.
"We want to make certain there is no preferential treatment. We want to make certain people are in the queue and have the opportunity to complete the process."
On the other hand, the Brentwood Republican said, "You don't want amnesty."
Considerable focus, she said, should be on "a way of paying and righting those wrongs" by those in the United States illegally.
Blackburn added, "I don't know exactly what the proposals will be for bringing that forward, but I know that's important."
Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville, also welcomed the renewed attention to the issue.
"It's good that Congress is discussing sensible, comprehensive immigration reform," Cooper said in statement.
"I voted for the DREAM Act in 2010 because I believe that law-abiding students and those willing to serve in our military, who came to this country through no fault of their own, should be encouraged to pursue the American dream of citizenship. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, local universities like Lipscomb, and religious organizations like the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention all believe, as I do, that the creation of an earned path to citizenship is good for America."
Republican Sen. Bob Corker's only comment was, "The details really matter, so I look forward to reviewing actual legislative text when it is available."