Senate Democrats on Thursday pushed back against Republican opposition to key elements of comprehensive immigration reform plans presented by President Barack Obama and a bipartisan group of senators.They also provided a key new detail about a plan being drafted by the Senate group.
Democrats told a group of Hispanic media outlets they would insist that immigration reform be accomplished in one comprehensive bill rather than a series of legislative pieces. They also made it clear they would not support a bill that does not contain a pathway to citizenship, a provision opposed by some key House Republicans. Democrats emphasized for the first time that as much as a decade could pass before undocumented immigrants can apply for permanent legal status.
"This notion that we can have a comprehensive bill and not include a path to citizenship is unacceptable," Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a member of the Senate's "Gang of Eight" negotiators on immigration, told a roundtable of journalists at the Capitol.
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The senator's comments came after the Republican-controlled House held its first hearing on immigration reform this week, during which some lawmakers indicated they would oppose the plan being crafted in the Senate.
Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) said during the hearing that he would favor a piecemeal approach where Congress would first pass bills where Republicans and Democrats in both chambers agree, such as expanding the number of visas for high-skilled immigrants, before moving on to more contentious issues.
"When you take comprehensive [reform], then we're dealing with certain issues like full citizenship," Bachus said, according to The Hill. "And whatever else we disagree on, I think we would agree on that that's a more toxic and contentious issue, granting full amnesty."
Democrats and immigration-reform advocates have voiced concern that a piecemeal approach could lead Congress to get sidetracked from central issues like a path to citizenship. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) rejected any approach that involves a series of separate bills.
"We weren't able to do much last Congress. People were trying to do things piecemeal," he told reporters. "We're not going to do anything piecemeal, that's over. We're going to do comprehensive."
Democrats also pointed out that a pathway to citizenship is an essential element of reform that enjoys popular support from the American public.
But some House Republicans remain unconvinced, preferring legal status that falls short of citizenship or no legal status at all.
Rep. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho), a supporter of the legal-status approach, said on NPR today that most House Republicans won't back a path to citizenship.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), a "Gang of Eight" member, and other Democrats said the legal-status-only approach would result in the creation of an immigrant underclass that's economically and politically disadvantaged.
"I think what Rep. Labrador believes in is a pathway to nowhere for those who are undocumented," Menendez said.
The House has its own bipartisan group working to draft an immigration reform bill, but the details of that plan remain unknown. And Republican leaders such as House Speaker John Boehner (Ohio) and Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va.) have indicated they are open to a wide range of plans.
Under the Senate's plan, undocumented immigrants who pass a background check and pay fines and back taxes would be eligible for a probationary legal status right away that would permit them to live and work in the U.S. After certain border security metrics are met, they would be allowed apply for permanent legal status -- a green card -- which would put them on the path to citizenship.
"That process is likely to be in the range of 10 years," Durbin said. "Now I say a range because we haven't nailed this down."
Menendez added that the group was working on ways to reduce the wait time for foreigners to reunite with their family members in the U.S. Senators emphasized that other elements such as a potential guest-worker program and future flows of immigrants are still being hashed out.
"There is progress being made," said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) "We still have a ways to go."