April 16, 2013 -- Today, a bipartisan group of eight senators will introduce a sweeping overhaul of the nation's immigration laws that would enforce tough border security measures in exchange for a path to citizenship for many, but not all, undocumented immigrants.
After months of negotiations, the group of four Democrats and four Republicans, known as the "Gang of Eight," put forth a carefully crafted compromise designed to satisfy the left and right. It would allow many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants to seek U.S. citizenship, but only after the federal government implements stricter border security standards and cracks down on employers who hire undocumented workers, according to a 17-page outline of the bill provided by Senate sources to Univision and ABC News.
The bill also makes significant changes to how foreigners can legally immigrate to the United States in the future. These changes are designed to ease the process, especially for those seeking work here.
"This is a very balanced bill," said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), the lead Democratic negotiator, on ABC's "This Week" last Sunday. "The American people have told us to do two things. One, prevent future flows of illegal immigration, and then come up with a common sense solution for legal immigration. And that's what our bill does."
The "Gang of Eight" had planned to officially roll out the proposal at a Tuesday press conference, but they postponed it out of respect for the victims of Monday's deadly bombing at the Boston Marathon. The senators will formally file the legislation Tuesday night and lawmakers are expected to hold the first of two public hearings on the bill on Friday.
The introduction of a comprehensive immigration reform bill -- titled the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 -- represents a major step forward for a cause that has been championed by Latino groups for years and that's one of President Barack Obama's top second-term priorities.
The bill's sponsors hope to attract an overwhelming bipartisan vote for it in the Senate, designed to compel the Republican-controlled House to pass it as well. The Senate plan has the full-throated endorsement of Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a rising conservative star who helped draft the bill.
But the plan still faces a tough road to passage. It is expected to run into resistance, especially from Republican lawmakers like Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) who have dismissed it as "amnesty."
Part of that is a response to the fact that the bill would allow undocumented immigrants a way to become American citizens for the first time in more than three decades. Not that it's going to be easy or cheap.
Several border security hurdles must also be cleared before undocumented immigrants can complete the path to citizenship. The bill requires the Department of Homeland Security to submit to Congress within six months of its passage plans to achieve unprecedented levels of border security. This includes preventing illegal border crossings and fortifying the fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.
After those plans are submitted, undocumented immigrants could begin to apply for provisional legal status ("Registered Provisional Immigrant Status," or RPI), the first step on the path to citizenship. Although it's important to note that undocumented immigrants who arrived after Dec. 31, 2011 would be barred from applying, a cutoff date that could prevent thousands from being legalized.
Immigrant-rights advocates reportedly sought a cutoff date in 2013, but the 2011 date was meant to satisfy Republican lawmakers who were concerned that the bill would lead to a surge of unauthorized immigration. An exception is made for individuals who were deported for non-criminal reasons before the Dec. 2011 cutoff, but have a spouse or children who are at minimum legal permanent residents in the U.S. They are allowed to apply to re-enter the U.S. to seek citizenship.
Young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, known as DREAMers, would receive a faster path to citizenship. They could apply for a green card within five years of being granted provisional status. Agricultural workers would also face a speedier and less costly path.
The application process for other immigrants requires that immigrants pay $500 in fines, back taxes, and pass a criminal background check. They would wait at least 10 years before they could seek legal permanent residency (a green card) that leads to citizenship, during which time they would be ineligible for federal benefits. They would have to renew their provisional status after six years, and pay another $500 fine.
After the 10-year wait, immigrants with provisional stastus could apply for a green card after paying a $1,000 fine and learning English and civics. Three years later, they could become naturalized U.S. citizens.
During that 10-year period, the Department of Homeland Security would be tasked with implementing its plan to clamp down on border security and deter businesses from hiring undocumented workers. Undocumented immigrants under provisional status cannot obtain green cards until those enforcement plans are considered "substantially deployed and substantially operational" by the Homeland Security secretary.
The bill sets lofty goals, including "persistent surveillance" of high-risk sectors along the southern border. That means any sector where there are more than 30,000 apprehensions of illegal crossers each year. The government must also achieve a 90 percent effectiveness rating for securing high-risk sectors, meaning that nine in ten people attempting to enter the U.S. illegally will be apprehended or turned back.
Overall, the bill provides $4.5 billion for the federal government to implement the plan over five years, $3 billion to hire thousands more Border Patrol and Customs agents and bolster technological surveillance measures, including the purchase of unmanned drone aircraft and $1.5 million toward strengthening the border fence, such as adding double- and triple-layered fencing in some areas.
If after five years the border security goals are not achieved, a commission of border-state governors and experts would make additional recommendations to fix the plan and an extra $2 billion could be allotted toward border security.
The border security "triggers" are meant to satisfy Republicans who have long demanded that enhanced border security measures be a precondition to a path to citizenship. But a Democratic source with knowledge of the plan emphasized that the benchmarks were achievable and would not block undocumented immigrants from obtaining a green card, the last step before applying for full citizenship.
"Like all genuinely bipartisan efforts, this bill is a compromise. It will not please everyone, and no one got everything they wanted," Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Schumer wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed on Monday. "[But]the legislation we introduce on Tuesday has more support than any past effort."
The bill would also crack down on businesses that hire undocumented immigrants by making it mandatory within five years for all employers to verify the immigration status of job applicants using the federal E-Verify program. In order to cut down on fraud, the bill would provide for increased use of so-called "biometric green cards" that include increased use of photograph matching, a move that could provoke privacy advocates.
It would also mandate the creation of a program to better track people when they enter and exit the U.S., since an estimated 45 percent of current undocumented immigrants overstayed their visas.
The plan would overhaul the immigration system by placing a greater focus on foreigners immigrating to the U.S. for economic reasons, rather than trying to reunite with families. That could frustrate immigrant-rights activists who clamored to expand family reunification visas.
The bill aims to clear a sizable backlog of family and employment-based immigrants. But it would eventually replace the current visa system with a "merit-based" program that would assign points to immigrants on the basis of education, work skills, and length of residence in the U.S. Points would also be assigned for some family considerations as well and spouses and minor children would remain protected under the program. That program would initially provide 120,000 visas per year.
It would also expand H1-B visas for high-tech workers from 65,000 to 110,000 per year and it creates a new visa category for foreign entrepreneurs who want to start a business in the U.S. The bill establishes a new "W-visa" for companies to eventually hire as many as 75,000 low-skilled, non-agricultural workers per year, the product of a key compromise by big business and organized labor.
At the same time, bill would do away with thousands of visas for brothers, sisters, and married children over the age of 31. It would also eliminate the diversity lottery for immigrants from countries with traditionally-lower levels of immigration to the U.S. The legislation does expand the V visa for family members of green card holders to reunite in the U.S.
"We believe our legislation represents a responsible, humane and enduring solution to the problem of the millions who are here illegally while continuing to attract and assimilate some of the most skilled talent the world has to offer," Schumer and McCain wrote.