He calls his position "a great compromise," one he says has serious support among House Republicans.
Utah's other three House members Republicans Rob Bishop and Jason Chaffetz and Democrat Jim Matheson were not ready to take any hard stances, but all said they could potentially support a path to citizenship contingent on the penalties that it includes and how it fits into a wider reform effort.
"There's got to be some light at the end of the tunnel," said Chaffetz, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, which will debate the topic.
Undocumented • An estimated 11 million people now live in this country without valid visas. The Senate immigration plan would give most of them temporary legal status and it would take at least 13 years for these immigrants to become full-fledged citizens. As part of the process, immigrants would be required to pay a $1,000 fine, study English and civics and stay out of trouble with the law.
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, may support this key provision if the Senate requires these immigrants to pay back taxes and forgo some health benefits for a longer period of time. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, says he can not back it. He considers the proposed path to citizenship too easy and the bill too bureaucratically cumbersome.
The House is still drafting its own reform bills.
Stewart isn't the only one who argues legal status, without citizenship, is as far as legislation should go.
A poll conducted by Pew Research Center in May found that a fourth of respondents agreed with Stewart, while another quarter thought these immigrants shouldn't receive any legal status. The largest group of respondents, 44 percent, said immigrants should be able to apply for citizenship.
No citizenship • Peter Skerry, a political scientist at Boston College, is among those who support Stewart's stance, and he pushed the idea in an article for the magazine National Affairs.
"It would speak directly and sympathetically to the frustrations and anger over illegal immigration felt by many Americans," Skerry wrote in the periodical's winter edition. "And it would do so by not treating the undocumented as victims trembling in the shadows, but by calling them to step forward and assume responsibility for their decisions and then imposing on them a clear and decisive penalty."
But that penalty undercuts the "heart" of the immigration reform effort, according to Cecilia Munoz, director of the White House Domestic Policy Council.
She told a small group of newspaper reporters recently that President Barack Obama has been clear that immigration reform should include an avenue to gain citizenship.
"We are asking people to pay a fine, we are asking people to go through a long and arduous process," she said. "There is no reason to ask them not to become full members of our society. I think that is what we want from immigrants. We want them to assimilate. We don't want them to remain 'others.' "
Underclass • Democrats have criticized the idea of granting legal status but not citizenship, saying it creates a permanent underclass, but Stewart doesn't buy that. The status would be temporary, lasting only the life span of the immigrants because their children would be citizens. "It is far better than the alternative," he said. "If you want to talk to people about an underclass, talk about the people living in the shadows right now."
Chaffetz ran for Congress in 2008 on a strong immigration-enforcement platform and said he still "opposes blanket amnesty." He favors a requirement that immigrants return to their homeland before gaining legal status.
Bishop said he's open to a path to citizenship, but only after he's satisfied that the government is doing what it can to control the border. For Bishop, that means allowing the U.S. Border Patrol to operate on lands the government has deemed environmentally sensitive, a policy proposal he has pushed for several years.
"Border Patrol is prohibited on certain kinds of land from doing their jobs," he said. "Where they are not prohibited from doing their job, they do a damn good job."
Matheson wants serious "consequences or restitution" for people who broke immigration laws, but he said he's not ready to take a hard stand for or against any solutions, except for the most extreme.
"Anyone who is really serious about this issue realizes you are not going to kick 11 [million] or 12 million people out of this country."