Brian Bennett, Los Angeles Times, March 11, 2013
Eight senators who have spent weeks trying to write a bipartisan bill to overhaul immigration laws have privately agreed on the most contentious part of the draft—how to offer legal status to the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants.
According to aides familiar with the closed-door negotiations, the bill would require illegal immigrants to register with Homeland Security Department authorities, file federal income taxes for their time in America and pay a still-to-be-determined fine. They also must have a clean law enforcement record.
Once granted probationary legal status, immigrants would be allowed to work but would be barred from receiving federal public benefits, including food stamps, family cash assistance, Medicaid and unemployment insurance.
The group’s current draft is largely in line with President Obama’s call to set a pathway to earned citizenship as part of a broader immigration reform package, as well as with recent efforts by prominent Republican lawmakers to resolve an issue that hurt GOP candidates in November’s election.
Still undecided is how long illegal immigrants would need to wait before they could apply for permanent resident status and eventually become citizens. The delay for a green card probably would be 10 years or longer, the aides said.
Also unresolved are such politically charged topics as how many visas to issue to high-tech specialists and other guest workers; how to keep track of when visitors leave the country; and how to pay for more Border Patrol officers, fencing and other security measures in an era of shrinking budgets, the aides said.
The group had hoped to deliver a completed bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee for consideration before the Senate leaves for Easter recess on March 22. But aides said remaining issues required more technical advice and cost estimates that could delay delivery until early April.
The group includes Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Marco Rubio of Florida and Jeff Flake of Arizona. The Democrats are Sens. Charles E. Schumer of New York, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado.
Unless the group designs a visa program that ensures a robust labor force, Rubio told reporters, “What you’re going to have is people coming into the country illegally or overstaying visas.”
In an effort to resolve the issue, negotiators from the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce have worked with Senate staffers to set a formula so the number of visas for both high-tech and low-skilled workers can fluctuate. They have agreed that the tally would move up or down based on job demand, unemployment rates and other data.
Unlike in the past, both business and organized labor want an immigration bill to pass, said Eliseo Medina, secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, which represents more than 2 million workers.