Across the board, members of the House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration said young people should not be punished for sneaking into the country unwittingly.
"They had no input into their parents' decision to bring the family to the U.S. illegally," said Rep. Bob Goodlatte, Virginia Republican and Judiciary Committee chairman. "Many of them know no other home than the United States, having grown up as Americans since they were toddlers, in some instances. They surely don't share the culpability of their parents."
These children should be able to earn citizenship through military service, their academic success and length of residency or other means, according to four congressmen who testified before Chairman Trey Gowdy, South Carolina Republican.
But Democrats signaled those measures might not be enough, since families could then be separated.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is working with Mr. Goodlatte on a bill based on the Dream Act, a bipartisan proposal Congress has mulled since 2001 that would grant legal status to students who have lived in the country for several years. Although it never passed, it coined the term "Dreamers" to described the children of illegal immigrants.
Many Republican members said adults should not receive a similar allowance, since they broke the law by entering the country illegally.
Mr. Cantor's bill, the "Kids Act," puts House Democrats in tough spot, because it could force them to either support a stand-alone measure they've pushed for years or reject it as part of unyielding attempts to secure a more comprehensive bill. They favor a sweeping bill like the one the Senate passed last month, which includes a path to legal status or citizenship for the roughly 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.
Democrats said it makes little sense to protect the eligible children of illegal immigrants — one witness said Tuesday they could number 2 million — only to deport their parents.
"Legalizing only the Dreamers is not enough," said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat. "It would not be enough given the years and decades of hard work and equities that millions of immigrants have built in this country."
The White House signaled Tuesday that a bill to keep children of illegal immigrants in the U.S., while potentially deporting their family members, is "unworkable."
"We think that the consensus is so broad here behind the need for comprehensive immigration reform that ultimately a bill will land on the president's desk that meets his principles and he can sign into law," spokesman Jay Carney said.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll shows most Americans favor a piecemeal approach, with 53 percent saying they would like to see the Senate plan split into pieces, while 32 percent want an up-or-down vote on the proposal, which passed out of the upper chamber in June on a 68-32 vote.
"We believe that a common-sense, step-by-step approach to addressing this problem makes a lot more sense than one big, massive, comprehensive bill," Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said Tuesday.
The House has signaled it will take up some or all of several bills that have emerged from their committees, which include pushing the administration to come up with a border strategy, imposing a mandatory national electronic worker verification system, granting more visas to high-tech workers and graduate degree holders, creating a guest-worker program for agriculture workers, and authorizing states and localities to enforce immigration laws.
On Tuesday, the conservative Heritage Foundation cast a critical eye on legislation for Dreamers, saying in a blog post it could encourage illegal immigration through "family-chain migration" and be unfair to millions of potential immigrants who are waiting to enter the country legally.
"Any legislation addressing these children would need to be solely for the benefit of the child, and no one else," Rep. Cory Gardner, Colorado Republican, told Mr. Gowdy's panel on Tuesday. "It cannot elicit chain migration. During the process we must find the appropriate balance."
Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican, also said parents of undocumented young people should not get a break from Congress. Questioning a witness from the Southern Baptist Convention, Mr. King said "mercy" is usually coupled with "repentance."
"Is it the parents fault?" he said in opening remarks. "I think so."