A bipartisan group of senators unveiled a framework for immigration reform today, balancing out pro-immigrant reforms like a path to citizenship for the undocumented with provisions for increased immigration enforcement on the border and in the workplace.
For decades, the conservative counter to immigration reform was that it would create "amnesty" -- a large-scale legalization – without preventing illegal immigration in the future. Now prominent Republicans like Florida's Marco Rubio and Arizona's Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake are onboard with a path to citizenship as an essential part of the package.
But the unified stance on citizenship doesn't mean the outline won't have contentious points. Here are three of the big ones:
1. Path to Citizenship
The new Senate plan presents an earned pathway to what it calls "probationary" legal status. The plan requires all undocumented immigrants to register with the government, undergo a background check, pay back taxes and pass tests in English and civics, among other requirements. Immigrants with probationary legal status would not be eligible for public benefits.
Under the plan, all criminal immigrants would be deported. That raises questions about which crimes will be deemed serious enough to trigger deportation. As it stands, even legal immigrants can be subject to deportation proceedings for crimes like marijuana possession.
The proposed pathway to a green card could also be lengthy. The plan says that undocumented immigrants should "go to the back of the line" for green cards, but the wait for a visa can be decades under the current system. In addition, the blueprint calls for all immigration enforcement measures to be fully in place before any immigrant on probationary status can earn a green card. How extensive those measures will be – and how long they will take to put in place – isn't clear, and spending on immigration enforcement already outflanks the combined budgets of all major federal criminal enforcement agencies.
2. Future Flows
The blueprint is ambiguous about one of the biggest challenges of immigration reform: how to create legal pathways for future immigrants. The plan calls for a way to allow low-skilled immigrants to enter the U.S. when the economy is strong, but doesn't get into details. A guest worker program – supported by business-centered Republicans and opposed by labor unions– isn't mentioned.
The blueprint calls for more visas in areas like technology and science, but doesn't explain how new visas in those areas might affect the number of family-based visas available. Under our current immigration system, most green cards are allotted on the basis of family reunification than for any other reason. It's unclear if the Senate proposal would change that.
3. Employment Verification
The Senate blueprints calls for a mandatory system to check whether employees are authorized to work in the U.S. Such a system already exists, called E-Verify, but it's not widely used. Groups concerned with immigrant rights, civil liberties and businesses have all been critical of it.
The main civil rights concern: If E-Verify incorrectly says that an employee isn't authorized to work, it could jeopardize a person's job.
Immigrants and people with "foreign names" are more likely to run into problems with the system, according to a 2011 report by the Migration Policy Institute. Looking at all the false "nonconfirmations" that were corrected by E-Verify in 2008, the report found that naturalized citizens were 30 times more likely to get a false return and that temporary workers were 50 times more likely.
The blueprint doesn't reference E-Verify specifically, but any mandatory employment eligibility program would face the same scrutiny.
While early media reports focus on Republicans embracing a path to citizenship, the Democratic support for strong enforcement measures may emerge as a more contentious storyline. Pablo Alvarado, the director of the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, spoke about the plan in a statement. "[T]he threat of deportation needs to be taken off the table immediately, by Congress or by the President," he said. "Immigrants themselves need to be part of the reform conversation and a full suspension of deportations will give families breathing room to do so."