Senate Takes First Step on Immigration With Bi-Partisan Plan

A group of Senators who have been meeting about reform since the election will release its principles for reform today.

By Seth Freed Wessler Jan 28, 2013

A bipartisan group of prominent senators, four Republicans and four Democrats, will announce a plan for an immigration law overhaul today. The framework, released early to reporters, includes a tightly controlled route to citizenship for many undocumented immigrants and additional immigration enforcement measures on the border and in workplaces. The blueprint comes a day before President Obama is expected to give a speech on immigration reform in Las Vegas. Together, the plan and the president’s speech will push comprehensive immigration reform into high gear. Democratic Senators Dick Durbin of Illinois, Chuck Schumer of New York, Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado will join Republicans Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Marco Rubio of Florida. The group, which has been meeting since after the 2012 elections to draft the plan, will discuss their proposal at a press conference in Washington this afternoon. The "framework" is intended to serve as a set of guiding principles for a comprehensive immigration reform legislation that members of Congress expect will be introduced in March. The plan is a mix of legal immigration programs for undocumented immigrants and additional immigration enforcement measures. The path to citizenship will kick in only after additional border security and visa entry controls are implemented. Immigrants under the plan would be required to pay back taxes, fines and other penalties and learn English before they can apply for permanent status. Applicants will also have to show they are currently employed. Those who have been convicted of crimes or are found otherwise ineligible for visas will be susceptible to deportation. It’s not clear now many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the country would be excluded because of these restrictions. To accommodate conservatives who have long demanded increased border security before agreeing to a path to citizenship, the framework states clearly that the process to gain permanent immigration status will begin only "[o]nce the enforcement measures have been completed." Those measures include new security on the border in the form of drones and surveillance and additional border guards sent to the areas between border crossing checkpoints. "The purpose is to substantially lower the number of successful illegal border crossings while continuing to facilitate commerce," the senators wrote. Many liberals and rights groups have resisted additional enforcement in light of the massive buildup of border security measures and investment during the Obama administration. More money is currently spent on border control and more border guards currently patrol the region than ever before. Democratic congressional staffers involved with drafting the proposal say they were not thrilled with the additional border security provisions, but, one aide said, "If we need some more [unmanned aerial vehicles] to get 11 million people legalized, we’ll take that." The framework includes language requiring that border patrol guards be trained to prevent racial profiling and inappropriate use of force. It’s not clear from the framework how the legislation will determine how much new enforcement is enough before unauthorized immigrants can gain permanent status. In the past, Republicans have used demands for more enforcement to derail reform efforts. The senators were clear in the language that the path to citizenship will be a long one for most undocumented immigrants. Those living in the U.S. without authorization "will only receive a green card after every individual who is already waiting in line for a green card, at the time this legislation is enacted, has received their green card," the document reads. Currently, it can take more than two decades for those applying for permanent immigration status to gain citizenship. Democratic Senate staffers involved in drafting the plan say the only way to make a system work that requires applicants to go to the "back of the line" would be to expand the number of available visas. The senators make two important exemptions to the lengthy citizenship path. Young people who came to the U.S. as kids, the groups referred to as DREAMers, "will not face the same requirements as other individuals in order to earn a path to citizenship." Similarly, agricultural workers would be offered a clearer path to citizenship under a bill based on these proposals. "Individuals who have been working without legal status in the United States agricultural industry have been performing very important and difficult work to maintain America’s food supply while earning subsistence wages," the framework reads. "Due to the utmost importance in our nation maintaining the safety of its food supply, agricultural workers who commit to the long term stability of our nation’s agricultural industries will be treated differently than the rest of the undocumented population." The plan calls for expanding the number of green cards for immigrants with a PhD or master’s degree in science, technology, engineering, or math from a U.S. university. The senators also agreed that a bill would need to reduce backlogs for family and employment-based visas that can currently take years and keep families separated for long periods of time. Vague language for an expanded program for new immigrants seeking work in the U.S. is also part of the framework. Whether this will be a so-called guest-worker program is not clear. Unions and worker’s rights groups have long resisted guest worker programs that lack strong protections for workers. In apparent recognition of this tension, the section of the framework dedicated to such a program is titled, "Admitting New Workers and Protecting Worker’s Rights." An additional part of the plan would mandate that employers check the immigration status of prospective hires "through non-forgeable electronic means prior to obtaining employment." In past years, employer verification proposals have included a national identity card. Civil liberties groups have resisted these kinds of programs. The release of the framework puts the Senate group ahead of President Obama, who will present his own immigration platform. The president’s proposal is likely to be to the left of the bi-partisan groups, though not significantly. Meanwhile, some Republicans have vowed to introduce their own piecemeal immigration legislation, though Senator Marco Rubio’s inclusion in the group of senators may undercut that approach. Rubio, a prominent Republican, has previously proposed a multi-part immigration reform fix but appears to have agreed to an omnibus proposal. Senate aides say they’ll now turn to drafting an actual bill, which will likely arrive in the Senate Judiciary Committee in March. Advocates for immigration reform, meanwhile, are keeping the pressure on. Rallies are scheduled in cities cross the country to demand action on a broad immigration reform bill that includes a clear path to citizenship.