Most of the immigrants who would not qualify under the bill fall into three categories: those convicted of a felony or more than two misdemeanors; those who cannot meet the work and financial requirements; and those who arrived in the United States after Dec. 31, 2011.
There are hundreds of thousands more immigrants who qualify for provisional legal status but will choose not to pursue it, analysts said. That includes those who do not understand the process, those who are fearful of being deported or those who do not plan to remain in the United States for the rest of their lives.
The federal analyses of how many immigrants would pursue citizenship are based partially on government data, but much uncertainty remains. For example, although experts said that 500,000 to 700,000 people entered the country illegally after the 2011 cutoff date, that number is growing each day.
Some immigration proponents said the legislation includes arbitrary barriers that exclude too many immigrants.
For instance, felony statutes vary by state, meaning that a person convicted of a felony in one state might not be considered a felon in another. Applicants for legal residency and citizenship must show that they have been continuously employed, with gaps of no more than 60 days at a time — which could be difficult in a weak economy.
The fees required to gain provisional legal status — $500 per person at the start, escalating to at least $2,000 over 10 years — could be a barrier for poorer applicants.
Perhaps most arbitrary of all, immigration advocates said, is the cutoff date, the product of extensive negotiations this spring.
Senate aides said Democrats wanted to allow all immigrants who entered the country before the date the bill becomes law to be eligible for the path to citizenship. But Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) countered with a deadline set five years prior to the enactment of a new law, arguing that only immigrants who had established deep economic and social ties deserved to pursue full legal status.
The December 2011 date represents a compromise roughly in the middle, assuming Obama were to sign the law by the end of the year, aides said.
“If Republicans are going to take a political risk by voting to legalize, they might as well go all the way,” said Kevin Appleby, migration policy director at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which supports a path to citizenship. “It’s not like they get political credit because 3 million didn’t get legalized and 8 million did.”
Compromise splits family
Some immigration analysts said the Senate compromise is better than the one struck in 1986, when lawmakers decided that those who entered the country after 1982 would be ineligible.
“This is a balancing act. You’ve got to reconcile a set of tensions and contractions. They’ve done so pretty well,” said Doris Meissner, who served as Immigration and Naturalization Services commissioner in the Clinton administration.
Among those who would be left out is Yessenia, 31, who left a violent town in El Salvador and entered the United States illegally in April with her 17-year-old brother and 4-year-old daughter.
After paying $21,000 for human smugglers to help negotiate the month-long trip, Yessenia said she was caught by immigration authorities in Houston. They sent the three to live with her mother in Montgomery County while she awaits a court date this fall.
Yessenia’s mother, who has lived in the country illegally for eight years, would qualify for legal status under the Senate bill. But Yessenia and her brother and daughter would not. If they are sent back, she said, she fears that her brother will be forced into one of the violent gangs controlling her home town.
Speaking through a CASA of Maryland interpreter on the condition that her last name not be used, Yessenia said, “Even people who have been here for less than a year deserve a chance.”