WASHINGTON – There will be a path to citizenship for immigrants in this country illegally but not before the border is secure, under a bipartisan Senate bill expected to be filed this week.
An outline of the immigration reform bill proposed by the so-called “Gang of 8″ calls for billions more for border security, changes in visa laws, stricter enforcement of laws against hiring illegal immigrants and a pathway to lawful residence in 10 years and, later, citizenship.
Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., two of the eight senators who have worked on the proposal for the past two months, briefed President Barack Obama on the bill Tuesday.
“This bill is clearly a compromise, and no one will get everything they wanted, including me,” Obama said in a statement after the meeting. “But it is largely consistent with the principles that I have repeatedly laid out for comprehensive reform.”
He called on the Senate to move quickly on the bill, which is expected to be filed Wednesday and heard Friday by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Republicans have insisted that the border be secure before any pathway to citizenship is opened for the 11 million people in the country illegally.
The bill defines a secure border as one where 90 percent of the people who cross illegally in a high-risk sector – one where more than 30,000 people cross each year – are caught or turned back.
Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Tucson, supports a pathway to citizenship but said requiring a secure border first is tough for him to swallow.
“If there are triggers attached that say, ‘We will not move on this path unless…,’ then I’m uncomfortable and not supportive, and I think a lot of other people will be too,” Grijalva said Tuesday on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal.”
But the outline describes several triggers.
Within 180 days of the bill’s approval, the Department of Homeland Security would have to present Congress a comprehensive border security plan as well as a plan for fencing along the southern border.
Once that is accomplished, people here illegally could apply for “registered provisional immigrant” status in this country.
Next, the department would have to implement those security plans, put a mandatory employment-verification system in place and establish an electronic exit system at air and sea ports of entry. At that point, registered provisional immigrants could begin the process of applying for lawful residency.
To apply for registered provisional status, an immigrant would have to have been in the United States by Dec. 31, 2011, pay a $500 penalty, be assessed taxes and pay an application fee. Those who had committed felonies or three misdemeanors would not be eligible.
Spouses or parents of U.S. citizens, legal residents or those eligible for the DREAM Act – generally people who were brought here illegally as children – could also apply for registered provisional status even if they had been deported for non-criminal reasons.
People facing deportation would also be allowed to apply.
The window to apply would be one year, although the Homeland Security secretary could extend that to two years. Once granted, registered provisional status would last six years and could be renewed, with an additional $500 fee.
Ten years after getting registered provisional status, immigrants could apply for legal permanent residence, but only if all those people awaiting a green card at the time the law is passed have gotten through the system.
Legal permanent residence is still several years from applying for citizenship.
The bill makes exceptions for DREAMers and those here on agricultural immigration programs. Both could bet legal permanent residence in five years, and DREAMers could apply for citizenship immediately after they get their so-called green cards.
Regina Jefferies, head of the Arizona chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said she is encouraged by the outline of the bill. She called the time frame reasonable, and said the expedited process for DREAMers is a good addition that recognizes their particular circumstances.
Jefferies is concerned about the call for border security and said it will be important to make sure the money – at least $4.5 billion – is spent wisely.
“We have to make sure we’re not just throwing money at the border,” she said. “We’ve already spent lots and lots of money on the border.”
The bill calls for $3 billion for extra customs and border patrol officers, for manned and unmanned aircraft and other surveillance and detection systems on the southern border. It would also put $1.5 billion toward the southern border fence, including double-layer fencing, infrastructure and technology.
If the 90 percent effectiveness rate is not reached on the southern border within five years, a commission would be set up to analyze the situation and recommend ways to reach that goal. Another $2 billion could be appropriated to implement those recommendations.
Jefferies recommended that everyone take a deep breath and review the bill. This is just the beginning of the debate, she said.
“Remember that this is a process that’s going to take a while,” Jefferies said. “There’s no law yet.”