Senate ‘Gang of Eight’ presents comprehensive immigration reform to deal with 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.

Border Patrol agents conduct pat downs of migrants caught crossing the border illegally in the Imperial Valley Sector. SOURCE: Border Patrol / Gerald L. Nino

The Senate’s ‘Gang of Eight’ yesterday presented their comprehensive plan to fix the nation’s broken immigration system and strengthen border security.

“We still have a long way to go but this bipartisan blueprint is a major breakthrough,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). “The key to our compromise is to recognize that Americans overwhelmingly oppose illegal immigration and support legal immigration.” 

The centerpiece of the bipartisan plan is to confer conditional legal status on the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States, creating a “tough but fair” pathway to citizenship.

“I think everyone agrees that it’s not beneficial for our country to have these people hidden in the shadows. Let’s create a system to bring them forward, allow them to settle the debts to society, and fulfill the necessary requirements to become law-abiding citizens of this country. This is consistent with our country’s tradition of being a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “What’s going on now is unacceptable. 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 lawns, 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.”

If the Gang of Eight’s immigration framework is adopted, those who have illegally entered or stayed in the United States would be required to register with the federal government, undergo a background check, pay a fine and back taxes before they are granted “probationary legal status” to live and work in the U.S. (Those who have committed serious crimes are not eligible for legal status and would be deported.)

“Immediately, when the bill passes, people who are here living in the shadows would get a legal right to stay here and work. They would no longer be deported, provided they don’t have a criminal record. They would no longer be harassed. They would be working,” said Schumer.

However, the federal government must meet certain requirements (which are still to be determined) to secure the border and combat visa overstays before these undocumented immigrants may apply for permanent residency or a green card.

“To prove to the American people that we’re serious about permanently ending illegal immigration to the U.S., we say we will never put these individuals on a path to citizenship until we have fully secured our borders and combatted the patter of people overstaying their legal immigration visas,” said Schumer.

Even then, the undocumented immigrants would “be required to go to the back of the line of prospective immigrants”. In other words, green card applications from undocumented immigrants will not be processed until “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.”

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) stressed that the pathway to citizenship must be set up “in a way that is fair to the people who are doing it the right way…waiting in line to legally come here.”

“We have to be fair to them. We also have to ensure that we don’t do anything that encourages people to come here illegally in the future,” said Rubio.

In order to receive a green card, the undocumented immigrants must submit to an additional background check, learn English and have a basic understanding of U.S. civics, provide evidence of their work history in the U.S., and show that they are currently employed. But even if they are granted permanent resident status (i.e. a green card), it would still be years before they could apply for U.S. citizenship.

The plan does exempt so-called “Dreamers” – or immigrants who illegally brought into the United States when they were children – and undocumented agricultural workers who “have been performing very import and difficult work to maintain America’s food supply” from the tough permanent residency requirements.

The Gang of Eight’s plan also calls for additional resources – including surveillance equipments and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – to bolster security along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“The security situation along the southwest border is not perfect. There remains several areas, particularly in Arizona, where people’s homes are being invaded, where drug smugglers are crossing property every night,” said McCain. “To combat this, we need to continue to invest in high technology…that would give the Border Patrol the ability to detect and apprehend illegal entries into the United States.”

McCain also emphasized the need to “shut off the magnet that attracts illegal workers”. To that end, the bipartisan framework proposes to combat identity theft, improve the mandatory employment verification system, increase fines and step up enforcements against employers who knowingly hire undocumented immigrants.

The framework also proposes establishing a new agricultural workers program to allow lower-skill immigrants to legally work for farms and dairies in the United States. (Most Americans do not seek agricultural jobs such harvesting vegetables and picking fruits in the heat.) The aim is to create a system that “allows immigrant workers to enter the country without seeking the aid of human traffickers and drug cartels.” The program would also provide immigrant workers with strong labor protections and allow those who have positive work records to to apply for green cards.

Another important component of the bipartisan proposal is to reform the legal immigration system to “attract the best and brightest” people to the United States. One of the goals is to reduce the backlog in family and employment visa requests. The Senators have also proposed automatically granting a green card to immigrants who have received a Master’s or Ph.D. degree in science, engineering, math, and technology from an American university.

And finally, the framework would tie future immigration flow to the employment demands in the United States.

“If there are jobs that there aren’t Americans for, then obviously it’ll much easier for people to come in. An example – farm workers. Americans, by in large, don’t to the farm work…and so we need workers like that,” said Schumer. “I think we are all united in the view that immigration is good for America and good for employment and good for a growing economy and to have people who will pay taxes, who will contribute to the economic well-being is a very good thing.”

Schumer said the goal is to translate the principles outlined in the bipartisan framework into a Senate bill by March. Then the bill will be reviewed and marked up by the Senate Judiciary Committee chaired by Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy. Schumer hopes the Senate will pass the immigration reform law by late spring or early summer.

“We believe we have a window of opportunity to act, but we will only succeed if the effort is bipartisan,” said Schumer. “We believe this will be the year Congress finally gets it done. 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 supporting it.”

McCain said he is “encouraged” that GOP House Speaker John Boehner has expressed a willingness to address immigration reform this year.

McCain also warned of the political ramifications that Republicans will face at the polls if they continue to obstruct bipartisan efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

“Elections. The Republican Party is losing the support of our Hispanic citizens. And we realize that there are many issues which we think we are in agreement with our Hispanic citizens but this is a preeminent issue with those citizens,” said McCain. “We cannot continue as a nation with 11 million people residing in the shadows. And we have to address the issue and it has to be done in a bipartisan fashion.”


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