Our immigration system is broken – Bipartisan Senate proposal includes path to citizenship

By Dan Nowicki and Daniel González – January 29, 2013
The Republic | azcentral.com

A bipartisan push for comprehensive im­migration reform, including a pathway to citizenship that is contingent on border secu­rity, shifted into high gear in the Senate on Monday, the day before President Barack Obama was expected to make a major speech on the issue at an appearance in Las Vegas.

A framework for a rewrite of the nation’s immigration laws, a topic the Senate last tried to tackle in a serious way six years ago, was unveiled by group of eight senators that includes Republicans John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona.

Five of the members presented their compromise at a hastily convened afternoon news conference to get ahead of Obama and to take the lead on the issue.

Flake, a freshman, was flying from Arizo­na to Washington, D.C., and did not attend. It’s unclear how the Senate plan will differ from what Obama will present today, though he also has called for a pathway to citizen­ship and identified immigration reform as a top legislative priority.

Under the senators’ plan, undocumented immigrants already in the country would be able to apply for legal permanent status and eventually earn citizenship, but only after the border is deemed secure by a commission of border governors, state attorneys general and other border-community leaders, according to the group’s agreement of principles.

Undocumented immigrants would also have to pass background checks, pay fines and back taxes, learn English and wait in line for green cards to prevent them from getting ahead of legal immigrants.

The requirements are intended to punish immigrants who entered the country illegally or overstayed visas while allowing them to gain legal status. They are also an attempt to mollify critics who view any legalization program as amnesty for lawbreakers.

Two groups would be exempt from those requirements: so-called dreamers who came to the United States as minors and therefore did not “knowingly” violate any immigration laws; and undocumented farmworkers who have been “performing very important and difficult work to maintain America’s food supply while earning subsistence wages,” the agreement said.

The senators hope that their skeletal outline can be fleshed out into legislation by March and that the Democrat-controlled Senate can pass it by late spring or early summer. The progress so far has immigration-reform advocates optimistic, although getting a bill through the Republican-run House is seen as a far murkier proposition.

Previous full-fledged congressional efforts to pass immigration-reform bills failed in 2006 and 2007, but the shellacking that GOP presidential contender Mitt Romney took in the November election among Hispanic voters has prompted many Republicans to rethink their previous opposition.

“Other bipartisan groups of senators have stood in the same spot before, trumpeting similar proposals, but we believe this will be the year Congress finally gets it done,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, DN. Y., chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security.

Speaking at a Capitol Hill news conference on Monday, Schumer said, “The politics on this issue have been turned upside down. For the first time ever, there’s more political risk in opposing immigration reform than in supporting it.”

Staking out ground on issue

The announcement by the four Democratic and four Republican senators stakes out their ground in advance of today’s remarks by Obama, who is expected to announce his own plan for overhauling the nation’s immigration system, including how he would address the approximately 11million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. As many as 40 percent or more of those are believed to have entered the U.S. legally with visas and then stayed in the country illegally.

“What is going on now is unacceptable,” McCain said at the news conference. “In reality, what’s been created is a de facto amnesty. We have been too content for too long to allow individuals to mow our lawn, serve our food, clean our homes and even watch our children while not affording them any of the benefits that make our country so great.”

In addition to Schumer, McCain and Flake, the bipartisan coalition includes Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.; Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; Robert Menendez, D-N.J.; and Marco Rubio, R-Fla.

Schumer said that he and Durbin, the Senate majority whip, on Sunday updated Obama on the group’s ideas and that the president “couldn’t be more pleased.”

“He strongly supports this effort,” Schumer said.

Concerns about the proposal

In a statement, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican who in 2010 signed the state’s controversial Senate Bill 1070 immigration law, said she has been in contact with McCain and will review the plan once legislation is introduced. Until then, she said she will continue to discuss the issue with southern Arizona ranchers, business leaders and residents and vowed to “make sure their voices are heard” in Congress.

“I am pleased that there is expressed recognition of what we have been saying in Arizona: Immigration reform will not succeed unless and until we have achieved effective border security,” Brewer said. “ It would be a triumph for the rule of law and a testament to the united voices of Americans from across our country who have been clear in their call for the federal government to uphold its duty to secure the border.”

Other critics of illegal immigration panned the senators’ outline, which includes measures for stronger border security, establishing an effective employment- verification system to ensure that employers hire legal workers, improving the legal-immigration system, and making it easier for farmworkers to come to the U.S. legally.

“The Senate Gang’s proposal is ‘Amnesty 2.0’ — meaningless enforcement measures, mass amnesty and increases in legal immigration, with taxpayers left to foot the bill,” said Rosemary Jenks, director of government affairs for NumbersUSA, an organization that pushes for reductions in immigration.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., forecast a financial strain associated with the plan.

“Amnesty will not help balance our budget,” Sessions, the Senate Budget Committee’s ranking GOP member, said in a written statement. “In fact, a largescale amnesty is likely to add trillions of dollars to the debt over time, accelerate Medicare’s and Social Security’s slide into insolvency and put enormous strain on our public-assistance programs.”

Speaking on CNN, McCain countered criticism about the fiscal impact.

“There’s 11 million people who are in our country living in the shadows,” McCain said. “I don’t believe that anyone has come up with a plan, if you wanted to deport them, not to mention the effect it would have on our economy. The majority of them have been in our country for over 10 years.”

Under the plan, immigrants who receive lawful probationary status wouldn’t be allowed to access federal benefits.

Louis DeSipio, a political-science professor and immigration expert at the University of California-Irvine, anticipates the cornerstone of Obama’s immigration plan will be a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants but not contingent on border security.

He also said he believes the Senate group’s recommendation that illegal immigrants can apply for permanent residency only after the border has been declared secured by a commission of border governors and other border leaders is designed to appease conservatives opposed to a legalization program. The provision is a variation on a proposal that McCain first floated during his unsuccessful 2008 run for the presidency.

“In a sense, that is a fig leaf for the Senate because then they can say, ‘We are not really supporting legalization because there has to be this independent commission,’ ” he said.

Other reform supporters also mentioned concerns about the border panel.

“There is a little bit of a kerfuffle about this border commission and how much authority it’s going to have,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a national organization that champions comprehensive immigration reform. “Someone said it’s an advisory commission, and someone said that Jan Brewer will have a veto over when people get to get citizenship. Those details will have to be hammered out.”

In an interview with The Arizona Republic , Flake confirmed that a previous idea known as “touchback,” which would have required undocumented immigrants to return to their home countries before reapplying to enter the United States, has been dropped.

He said immigrants could secure probationary legal status even prior to implementation of the additional border-security improvements, which would include strengthening the Border Patrol with the state-of-the-art technology, infrastructure and personnel needed to “prevent, detect and apprehend every unauthorized entrant.”

The agreement calls for more unmanned aerial vehicles and surveillance equipment, better radio systems and more agents at and between ports of entry.

“The bottom line is that nobody who is here illegally now would be forced to go home,” Flake said. “Anybody who hasn’t committed crimes who is facing some sort of action just by virtue of being here illegally — my understanding is that they would stay here and be accorded some kind of status until it’s adjudicated. Nobody would be forced to go home.”

Once enforcement measures in the senators’ agreement have been completed, immigrants who have received probationary legal status would be allowed to apply for green cards.

To be eligible for green cards, undocumented immigrants granted probationary legal status would be required “to go to the back of the line of prospective immigrants” as well as pass background checks, pay taxes, learn English and civics and demonstrate they have worked in the United States. Undocumented immigrants who apply for green cards would have to wait until all legal immigrants who had applied for green cards before the reforms are passed had received theirs, the agreement says.

Flake said the senators announced their principles ahead of the president’s speech to set the two plans apart. “If it was seen as his, right now in the current environment, that might kind of poison the well with Republicans,” he said.

Sharry predicted that Obama’s Las Vegas speech will up the political ante.

“I suspect he is going to make the case for immigration reform in his terms,” Sharry said. “I think it will accomplish two things. It will show that the president is serious about making this a priority and about leaning into it and leading on it. And I think it is going to drive the debate to a much more specific policy discussion.”

Republic reporter Erin Kelly contributed to this article.

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