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Immigration bill criticized for going too far – or not far enough

The man behind Arizona’s SB 1070 immigration crackdown law told a Senate committee Monday that border-security provisions in the comprehensive immigration reform bill filed last week are “not serious.”

Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who helped craft the Arizona law, was one of 23 witnesses representing interests from agriculture to gay rights at a marathon Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the 844-page bipartisan immigration bill unveiled Thursday.

Among other changes, that bill establishes a path to citizenship that relies on a secure border. The group of senators who wrote the bill, known as the Gang of 8, said that the measure would not please everyone – and testimony Monday proved them correct.

“While the bill you are considering is an excellent starting point for reform, I submit to you that it is still incomplete. Families like mine are left behind as part of this proposal,” said former U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe, a Republican who used to represent Southeastern Arizona.

Kolbe, who is engaged to a Panamanian man, urged the committee to add an amendment that would offer a path to citizenship for same-sex partners. He said his partner had to leave the U.S. to apply for a new visa, a lengthy and expensive process that would be far beyond the reach of most same-sex couples.

Kolbe said he was able to work for his partner’s return, but other couples in the same situation may just leave, leading to a loss of highly skilled immigrants. That should give the committee pause, he said.

“The opportunity is too rare, and the positive impact too great to leave anyone behind,” Kolbe said.

Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, voiced similar concerns, telling the committee that the path to citizenship might be too long and too costly for most immigrants. The path outlined in the bill includes back taxes, a fine, an application fee and a 10-year wait for permanent residency.

Like Kolbe, she said it was a start – a “sane and humane” start.

The hearing also brought together the National Council of Farmer Cooperatives and the United Farm Workers of America. They talked about the compromise in the bill that they said could provide the industry with needed labor while giving workers necessary protection and, possibly, higher wages.

Charles Conner, the cooperative's president, said that about 60-70 percent of the workforce in agriculture is currently undocumented and the bill could provide a path to legal residency.

But a few members on the committee were skeptical about taking jobs away from Americans.

“I’m dubious there are jobs Americans won’t do,” said U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.

Kobach said the bill would gut state laws like Arizona’s Employer Sanctions Law that are aimed at stopping the hiring of immigrants who are here illegally, and would prevent “self-deportation” laws like SB 1070 from working.

“Arizona has proven if you ratchet up the penalties people comply,” he said.

But several senators, including some authors of the bill, stood up for the plan, pointing to the billions it would allocate for improved border security and noting that something must be done to fix a system that they said is not working.

“If you are worried about amnesty, that is exactly what we have,” said U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R- S.C. National security will improve if the reforms in the bill create a process to identify all of the undocumented immigrates in the U.S., he said.

“Most people are OK with a pathway to citizenship, if it’s earned,” said Graham, one of the Gang of 8.

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Most senators on the committee seemed to support the path to citizenship for immigrants illegally brought to the U.S. as children, the so-called DREAM Act children.

“The DREAMers are ground zero,” said U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.

Maria Gabriela Pacheco, who was brought here from Ecuador as an 8-year-old, urged the committee to take action and open the way to citizenship for DREAMers like her and for the estimated 11 million immigrants in this country illegally.

“I ask you to give me, my family, and 11 million of us an opportunity to fully integrate and achieve our American Dream,” she testified.

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Mary Shinn/Cronkite News Service

Former U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe urged the Senate Judiciary Committee to include protections in any immigration reform bill for same-sex couples to sponsor partners to immigrate to the U.S., just as straight couples can.

Remaking immigration

The 844-page “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013″ bill is built on four main areas of reform:

Title I – Border Security: Provides for border security measures that will achieve and maintain effective control in high-risk areas of the southern border.

Title II – Legalization (Registered Provisional Immigrant program) and Legal Immigration: Provides a path to citizenship for the 11.5 million undocumented immigrants in the United States; establishes a new framework for future legal immigration by revamping the current family and employment based systems and creating two more merit-based immigration systems.

Title III – Interior Enforcement: Mandates E-Verify, provides additional worker protections, reforms the immigration court system and provides additional measures related to interior enforcement.

Title IV – Reforms to Non-Immigrant Visa Programs: Reforms current non-immigrant visa programs and creates a new worker visa that melds greater employer flexibility with worker protections and the ability to apply for permanent residence.