A draft of House Republican leadership principles for immigration reform became public during a GOP retreat this week in Cambridge, Md. The principles drew quick support from some agricultural groups, but brought to the surface the huge divides within the political arena over both substance and timing.

According to the draft document’s “preamble,” immigration reform cannot be solved with a single, massive piece of legislation, and House Republican leaders declared they will not go to a House-Senate conference that includes the comprehensive Senate bill approved last June. Instead, the House will continue to seek a step-by-step approach, starting with securing U.S. borders and tighter law enforcement within the country.

Under the guidelines, there would be no special path to citizenship for immigrants already in the United States illegally – estimated at about 11 million. Rather, those persons could live legally and without fear in the U.S., but only if they were willing to admit their guilt, pass rigorous background checks, pay significant fines and back taxes, develop proficiency in English and American civics, and be able to support themselves and their families without access to public benefits.

The Senate bill approved last summer would guarantee that immigrants would be able to gain permanent legal status, known as a green card, in 10 years and citizenship three years later, provided they meet a series of requirements.

The Republican plan would allow opportunity for legal residence and citizenship for children brought into the United States illegally through no fault of their own, provided they meet certain eligibility standards, serve honorably in the military or attain a college degree.

Reforms to the legal immigration system would be employment-based. Visa and green card allocations would match the needs of U.S. employers and the desire for highly skilled individuals to work in the United States.

A temporary worker program – particularly for agriculture – would create enforceable, usable, legal paths for worker entry into the United States, to help meet the economic needs of U.S. producers, without  displacing or disadvantaging American workers.

Employment verification and workplace enforcement would be accomplished by full implementation of an electronic employment verification system.

In addition, after reforms are implemented, there would be a “zero tolerance policy” for those who cross the border illegally or overstay their visas in the future. The measure would also prevent a president from unilaterally stopping immigration enforcement.

How and when the Republican proposals advance is uncertain. The future is full of potential political ramifications in an election year, with conservative Republicans opposed to pursuing reform, at the same time the GOP faces the prospects of losing more Latino voters to the Democratic Party. If it is to move forward, congressional action may have to wait until early summer, protecting Republican incumbents from conservative political opponents in spring primaries.

While Democratic leaders and the Obama Administration took a cautious approach to the Republican principles, Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a national federation of employers working to advance immigration law reform, called the Republican guidelines “a historic breakthrough” and a “game changer.”

Among the most important of the principles, Jacoby said, was the commitment to create new, better, streamlined programs to admit foreign workers – high-skilled and low-skilled – who will grow U.S. businesses and contribute to the economy.

“Without immigrant workers, the hospitality, construction, food processing and food service industries would all be severely hobbled, in some regions coming close to collapse,” Jacoby  said. ”Employers across these sectors often search desperately for legal options, and they need help from Washington – additional lawful ways to meet their labor needs.”

“The best antidote to illegal immigration is a legal immigration system that works – and an effective guest worker program, along with enhanced border security and worksite enforcement,” Jacoby said.

Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, said a comprehensive labor plan “is long overdue” to address the agricultural labor shortage. He commended House leadership for recognizing that farmers and ranchers need access to a legal and stable workforce.

“America’s farmers and ranchers depend on the workers who show up every day to tend crops and care for livestock,” Stallman said. ”In short, our farmers and ranchers need long-term access to a steady and reliable supply of skilled agricultural workers.”