That gap worries many reform proponents, who fear that the system would leave millions living in the shadows without legal protection. They would also be subject to harsher workplace requirements and enforcement measures included in the plan.
“We are very disappointed with that number, because we really want to reform the system once and for all and make sure we legalize all people who are not committing crimes,” said Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA of Maryland, an advocacy organization.
The bipartisan legislation that passed the Senate last month would set up a 13-year process toward citizenship for undocumented immigrants, including mandatory fines and other requirements. The Congressional Budget Office projected that 8 million immigrants would attempt to gain citizenship under the plan but that an additional 3.5 million would not qualify or would decide not to pursue it.
There is also no guarantee that those who begin the process will reach the goal of becoming naturalized. The Social Security Administration estimates that 400,000 of those who gain provisional status would drop out within six years because they would not meet the financial requirements.
The question of how many immigrants attain citizenship could be crucial to the success of an overhaul. When President Ronald Reagan signed the 1986 immigration bill, about half of the nation’s 5 million undocumented immigrants gained legal status. The other half became the base for the current undocumented population.
“The whole point of fixing the system is to do it in a way that improves our country by ending this system of second-class citizenry,” said Ana Avendaño, director of immigration at the AFL-CIO, which supports a path to citizenship to help ensure that employers do not exploit unauthorized immigrants for lower wages. “We do not want to create arbitrary conditions that re-create the exact same problem we’re trying to fix.”
Senate negotiators emphasized that the comprehensive immigration bill, which was approved by a 68 to 32 vote, was crafted to be as inclusive as possible, given Republican demands for financial penalties and other requirements.
“This was the best possible outcome in terms of creating a tough but accessible path to citizenship that will address the 11 million living in the shadows,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), a key architect of the legislation.
In the GOP-controlled House, leaders have said they will not take up the Senate bill and will instead pursue smaller-scale bills that do not include a path to citizenship. Some advocates fear that the House would further limit the number of immigrants eligible for legal status if it takes up that issue.