The release of a new bipartisan Senate plan to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws and a policy address expected Tuesday from President Obama have launched dramatic new momentum on a long-stalled issue.
Now the hard part begins.
The blueprint unveiled by senators Monday amid warm bipartisan unity settled some of the most difficult questions that have bedeviled efforts to change immigration laws, particularly by endorsing a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants. But it left unanswered dozens of key questions, all of which must be meticulously negotiated in the coming weeks under competing political pressures. And nobody thinks that will be easy.
“We still have a long way to go,” Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Monday, while calling the broad framework a major breakthrough.
“A first step in what will continue to be difficult — but achievable,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
The politics for passage are quite treacherous, with a number of key Republicans already labeling this latest iteration of immigration proposals as amnesty for the nation’s 11 million illegal residents. But even before the group of four Democrats and four Republicans can focus on the persistent GOP opposition, they must translate their broad statement of principles on the issue into a detailed bill that can withstand intense legislative scrutiny.
That means tackling a number of extremely difficult issues by the end of March, when the group has said it hopes to draft a bill. A bipartisan group is also working on legislation in the House, but most proponents believe legislative action will start in the Democratic-held Senate.
For instance, the Senate plan calls for offering illegal immigrants the chance to quickly achieve probationary legal residency, provided they register with the government and pay a fine and back taxes. But it does not outline how large a fine or how long the applicants would have to pay off their taxes.
“I think the question is, how broad will the road to citizenship be?” said Ai-Jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. “We have to make sure that it’s not so expensive and onerous that it doesn’t leave millions of people in limbo for an extended period of time.”
More critical to the coming debate is the senators’ requirement that illegal immigrants could not seek a green card — the first step to full citizenship — until the U.S.-Mexican border is secure and other enforcement measures are in place. The measures include a system for employers to verify the legal status of workers and a new way to track legal visa holders.
But the framework is silent on how federal officials would certify that the border is secure. It envisions the creation of a commission of governors, attorneys general and others living along the border to “make a recommendation regarding when the bill’s security measure outlined in the legislation are completed.” But it is not clear whether that recommendation would be considered advisory or would by law allow those with probationary status to seek permanent residency.
The commission, which would probably include immigration hard-liners elected to statewide office in recent years in Arizona and elsewhere, has already emerged as a potential flash point, making immigrants’ advocates and some Democrats deeply nervous.
President Obama is expected Tuesday to unveil his own immigration reform proposal, which would not include such a delay and which otherwise supportive Republicans are warning could sap bipartisan backing for the effort.
“All these things must happen before — before — there’s a path to a green card,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) told conservative talk show host Sean Hannity on Fox News on Monday, in one of a series of interviews Rubio has been conducting to sell the senators’ plan to GOP opinion makers.
Laura Lichter, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said she was concerned that the proposal placed too much emphasis on border control.
She also questioned another key plank the Republicans had required: that illegal immigrants would be sent to the back of the green card line behind those who had legally applied for residency.
“It’s really not appropriate to create a group of second-class non-citizens,” she said. “Do people realize how long the lines are? The lines are 10 years and sometimes two decades. Putting someone behind the 30-year line is not going to work.”
Another potentially tricky issue is what is known as “future flow” — how many new legal visas to give out and in what fields.
On Monday, Schumer called that issue “one of the shoals upon which the good ship ‘Immigration Reform’ has floundered” because it pits big business — which wants access to cheap labor — against the unions, which seek to require businesses to hire Americans.
Schumer said the AFL-CIO has been quietly meeting with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to work out an agreement that would link future immigration flow to unemployment rates. But details need to be fleshed out.
Dozens of other similar pitfalls abound.
The senators call for withholding federal benefits, including Medicare and Medicaid, from illegal immigrants who have met the demands to live and work in the country. But immigrant advocates question how, then, will often low-income immigrants get access to affordable health care?
The senators are silent, too, about whether same-sex partners would be eligible for the same benefits as married couples, a divisive question within more socially conservative portions of the immigrant community.
Obama will probably call for addressing the issue in his Las Vegas speech.