Immigration Debate Gears Up

Laura Meckler, Wall Street Journal, January 28, 2013

Millions of illegal immigrants would be given a path to citizenship under provisions of an immigration overhaul fashioned by a bipartisan group of senators, an opening shot in what promises to be a fight in Congress this year.

The legislative framework, released Monday, also would add federal agents and equipment to strengthen the borders and tighten work rules to ensure employers hire legally.

The unveiling comes before President Barack Obama plans to set out his own, similar principles in a speech Tuesday in Las Vegas. Mr. Obama repeatedly has said revamping the immigration system is one of his top priorities, while Republicans—smarting from the overwhelming Hispanic support of Mr. Obama in November’s election—also have identified the issue as of major importance.

Still, the Senate proposal could face stiff opposition in the Republican-controlled House. Many Republicans oppose any path to legal status for illegal immigrants, viewing it as a reward for lawbreaking. Other Republicans have signaled they are comfortable with a legal status short of citizenship, but immigration advocates view that as an unacceptable second-class status.

Under the Senate framework, most people in the country illegally now could qualify for legal status and work permits, provided they meet certain standards, including a background check and paying back taxes. They eventually could qualify for citizenship, but most would have to wait until certain border-security improvements were met and a new system put in place for tracking whether people who enter the country legally on temporary visas leave on time.

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The agreement provides a variety of other provisions. Among them: alleviating the backlog of people waiting to immigrate legally; awarding green cards to those who earn doctorates from U.S. universities in science, technology, engineering or math; stiff fines and possible criminal penalties for employers that fail to verify workers’ legal status; and creation of a program to fill low-skilled jobs that employers can’t get Americans to take.

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The provisions don’t address some smaller and potentially contentious aspects proposed for an overhaul, such as whether gay and lesbian Americans would have the right to sponsor their noncitizen spouses or partners for citizenship. Also unclear is whether immigrants with temporary legal status, but not citizenship, could quality for health-insurance subsidies under the 2010 health-overhaul law.

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The group hopes to have a bill by March that could move through the Senate by August. That would allow House consideration and negotiations between the two chambers during the fall. {snip}

In recent years, with the U.S. economy weak, illegal immigration has slowed to a trickle. But many in Congress, particularly Republicans, worry that after legislation is passed, there will be a fresh wave of illegal crossings as the economy rebounds.

To combat that, the framework proposes increased technology, infrastructure and personnel, including more unmanned aerial vehicles, to apprehend unauthorized entrants. It calls for stronger prohibitions against racial profiling and more training of border-patrol agents.

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Those brought to the U.S. as children or agricultural workers would face a quicker path to citizenship. But most others wouldn’t be able to apply until it was determined that the new border measures and visa-check system were in place.

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Once the enforcement measures are complete, people with probationary status could earn permanent legal residence, which can lead to citizenship, if they pay taxes, learn English and meet other requirements. They wouldn’t be able to earn a green card until all those waiting on the day the legislation is passed get theirs.

That meets a GOP demand that people who came to the U.S. illegally don’t earn special treatment. But to address Democratic concerns that the line is prohibitively long, the framework calls for reducing those backlogs.

The outline also provides for businesses to hire new immigrants for low-skill jobs if they can show they were unsuccessful in recruiting Americans. Those who do well eventually would be able to earn green cards.

Left unresolved is how many workers would be allowed in each year. {snip}

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