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Senators unveil sweeping immigration bill

Ajna Opiotennione, 28, of Washington, who emigrated from Ethiopia, poses for a portrait after attending the “Rally for Citizenship,” a rally in support of immigration reform, on Capitol Hill in Washington, on April 10. A bipartisan group unveiled an immigration bill on Thursday that includes a pathway to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million immigrants with illegal status.

Ajna Opiotennione, 28, of Washington, who emigrated from Ethiopia, poses for a portrait after attending the “Rally for Citizenship,” a rally in support of immigration reform, on Capitol Hill in Washington, on April 10. A bipartisan group unveiled an immigration bill on Thursday that includes a pathway to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million immigrants with illegal status. Photo by The Associated Press.

WASHINGTON (AP) — Four Democratic and four Republican senators formally unveiled a sweeping immigration bill Thursday at a news conference attended by traditional opponents from big business and labor, conservative groups and liberal ones. The lawmakers argued that this time, thanks to that broad-based support, immigration overhaul legislation can succeed in Congress.

“Powerful outside forces have helped defeat certain other initiatives in Washington, but on immigration, the opposite is proving true,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said a day after senators under intense lobbying pressure blocked a major gun control package. “I am confident this issue will not fall victim to the usual partisan deadlock.”

Support for the bill is already being put to the test as conservatives grow more vocal in opposition. Two Republican senators held a dueling news conference with law enforcement officials to bash the bill’s security provisions, and several conservative bloggers seized on one provision of the legislation to falsely claim that it would allow people here illegally to get free cellphones.

The 844-page bill is designed to secure the border, allow tens of thousands of new high- and low-skilled workers into the country while requiring employers to verify their legal status, and put 11 million people here illegally on a path to citizenship, as long as certain border security goals are met first.

“Yes, we offer a path to citizenship to people who didn’t come here legally,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., anticipating opposition to that provision. “They’re here, and realistically there is nothing we can do to induce them all to return to their countries of origin.”

In addition to Schumer and McCain, the members of the so-called Gang of Eight are Democrats Dick Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado, and Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona.

The bill will get its first hearing today before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Standing behind the senators was a who’s-who of Washington conservative and liberal leaders, representatives from religious groups, Latino activist organizations and others.

Before the senators came to the podium, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist shook hands with AFL-CIO leader Richard Trumka, then exchanged pleasantries with Neera Tanden, head of the liberal Center for American Progress. They were joined by Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, Bruce Josten of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Clarissa Martinez of the National Council of La Raza and others, around two dozen all together.

Many of the advocates and senators present were veterans of past failed efforts of reform, most notably in 2007, when legislation pushed by then-President George W. Bush collapsed on the Senate floor amid a ferocious public backlash and interest-group opposition.

Asked why an immigration overhaul would succeed this time, McCain turned and pointed to the advocates arrayed behind him.

“This is a coalition. I never thought I’d be standing with Richard Trumka,” McCain said. “This is why we will succeed.”

The alliances the senators painstakingly knit together is one difference this time, but the political climate is better too. President Barack Obama’s resounding victory among Latino voters in 2012 demonstrated to McCain and other Republicans the urgency for the GOP to act on the immigration issue. Polls also show majority public support for a path to citizenship for those here illegally.

Details of the Senate immigration bill

From the Associated Press

A look at the 844-page immigration overhaul bill introduced this week in the Senate by four Democratic and four Republican lawmakers:

BORDER SECURITY

•The bill sets goals of surveillance of 100 percent of the border with Mexico, and catching or turning back 90 percent of would-be crossers.

•Within six months of enactment of the bill, the Homeland Security Department must develop a border security plan to achieve those goals, including the use of drones, additional agents and other approaches; and develop a plan to identify where more fencing is needed.

•If the goals of 90 percent effectiveness rate and continuous surveillance on the border are not met within five years, a Southern Border Security Commission would be established with border-state governors and others to determine how to achieve them.

•Before anyone in the U.S. illegally can get a green card, the border security and border fencing plans must be in place. Also, a new entry-exit system must be implemented at U.S. seaports and airports to track people coming and going. And a mandatory system must be in place for employers to check workers’ legal status.

•About 3,500 new Customs agents would be funded nationally.

•The National Guard would be deployed to the border to build fencing and checkpoints, among other tasks.

•Funding would be provided to increase border-crossing prosecutions and to create more border patrol stations and forward operating bases.

PATH TO CITIZENSHIP

•The 11 million people in the U.S. illegally could obtain “registered provisional immigrant status” six months after enactment of the bill as long as:

(1) The Homeland Security Department has developed border security and fencing plans.

(2) They arrived in the U.S. prior to Dec. 31, 2011, and maintained continuous physical presence since then.

(3) They do not have a felony conviction or three or more misdemeanors.

(4) They pay a $500 fine.

•People in provisional legal status could work and travel in the U.S. but would not be eligible for federal benefits.

•The provisional legal status lasts six years and is renewable for another $500.

•People deported for non-criminal reasons can apply to re-enter in provisional status if they have a spouse or child who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, or if they had been brought to the U.S. as a child.

•After 10 years in provisional status, immigrants can seek a green card and lawful permanent resident status if they are up-to-date on taxes and pay a $1,000 fine, have maintained continuous physical presence in the U.S., meet work requirements and learn English. All people waiting to immigrate through the legal system as of date of enactment of the legislation must have been dealt with.

•People brought to the country as youths would be able to get green cards in five years, and citizenship immediately thereafter.

HIGH-SKILLED WORKERS

•The cap on the H-1B visa program for high-skilled workers would be immediately raised from 65,000 a year to 110,000 a year, with 25,000 more set aside for people with advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering or math from a U.S. school. The cap could go as high as 180,000 a year depending on demand and unemployment rate.

•New protections would crack down on companies that use H-1B visas to train workers in the U.S. only to ship them back overseas.

•Immigrants with certain extraordinary abilities, such as professors and researchers, multinational executives and athletes, would be exempted from green-card limits.

•A startup visa would be made available to foreign entrepreneurs seeking to come to the U.S. to start a company.

•A new merit visa, capped at 250,000 a year, would award points to prospective immigrants based on their education, employment, length of residence in the U.S. and other considerations. Those with the most points would earn the visas.

•The bill would eliminate the government’s Diversity Visa Lottery Program, which randomly awards 55,000 visas to immigrants from countries with historically low rates of immigration to the United States, so that more visas can be awarded for employment and merit ties.

LOW-SKILLED WORKERS

•A new W visa would allow up to 200,000 low-skilled workers a year into the country for jobs in construction, long-term care, hospitality and other industries.

•A new agriculture worker visa program would be established to replace the existing program. Agriculture workers already here illegally, who’ve worked in the industry at least two years, could qualify in another five years for green cards if they stay in the industry.

FAMILY IMMIGRATION

•Under current law U.S. citizens can sponsor spouses, children and siblings to come to the U.S., with limits on some categories. The bill would bar citizens from sponsoring their siblings and would allow them to sponsor married sons and daughter only if those children are under 31.

•Legal permanent residents can currently sponsor spouses and children, but the numbers are limited. The bill eliminates that limit.

EMPLOYMENT VERIFICATION

•Within five years, all employers must implement E-Verify, a program to electronically verify their workers’ legal status. As part of that, non-citizens will be required to show photo ID that must match with a photo in the E-Verify system.

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