‘Gang of 8′ touts immigration reform bill as best chance for change
A bipartisan group of eight senators unveiled an 800-page immigration reform bill Thursday, calling it a “fair, comprehensive and practical solution” to a difficult problem.
The bill calls for massive new spending on border security, new safeguards against hiring illegal immigrants, an expanded visa program and, finally, a difficult “but achievable” path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people here illegally now.
Though the legislation isn't "perfect," U.S. Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake defended the new immigration proposal drafted by the Senate's Gang of 8, saying it fixes a "broken system."
“We are all united in our determination that, at the end of the day, it remains a fair, comprehensive and practical solution to a difficult problem,” McCain told reporters in Washington, D.C.
On Facebook, Flake echoed similar sentiments: "There is sure to be something in this legislation for everyone to criticize, but this bill represents a measure that can actually pass Congress and is a huge improvement over the status quo."
The bill would establish a pathway to citizenship dependent on border security, a condition that senators said is vital to reform passing Congress and to solving the illegal immigration problem.
“Our approach is balanced. The border security triggers are strong, but achievable,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. “The path to citizenship is tough, but it is accessible.”
Schumer said the senators in the so-called “Gang of 8″ – four Republicans and four Democrats – recognized during their 24 meetings on the bill over the past several months that none of them would get everything they wanted.
And they noted that this is just the start of debate on the issue, which will be heavily debated and likely amended.
McCain said that while he welcomes improvements to the bill, he will oppose amendments that could keep a comprehensive reform measure from passing. That would do nothing to stem the country’s immigration struggles, he said.
“The status quo threatens our security, damages our economy, disregards the rule of law and neglects our humanitarian responsibilities,” McCain told reporters.
Arizona's senior senator acknowledged the bill is controversial.
"To paraphrase Churchill, this is not the end of the process, just the end of the beginning," he wrote Thursday afternoon. "There is a long and difficult road ahead. Committee hearings and mark up, full, open and, no doubt, spirited debate on the floor. We expect many amendments will be offered to the bill. Some will be intended to improve it. Some will be offered in the hope of killing it."
The sponsors said that a piecemeal approach to immigration reform, as some organizations and lawmakers have suggested, would not be an adequate fix.
“If we want the strong border security provisions that we have in this bill in particular, then you can only achieve that by pairing that with something that others feel very strongly about,” Flake said.
One stated goal of the bill is to prevent a “third wave” of immigrants crossing the border illegally.
The first wave was supposed to have been dealt with by a 1986 immigration reform law that granted amnesty to 3 million people then in the country illegally, as it promised to secure the border. The second wave came after that bill was passed, leading to current estimates of 11 million people here illegally.
The senators said not addressing the millions from that second wave who are “living in the shadows” is bad for the country going forward and will not help solve the problem.
The pathway to citizenship in the bill was agreed upon, in part, because there is no realistic way to make the people who are here return to the countries they came from, McCain said.
The senators conceded that the bill would be expensive, but said the costs will be covered by the various fees and fines that immigrants will have to pay as they move down the path to citizenship.
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.
Included are funds to hire 3,500 more agents on the U.S.-Mexico border, as well as spending on the Department of Homeland Security's drone program — including a new advanced radar system and a host of other surveillance technologies.
McCain has continually pushed for such spending in the last year, which would come on top of nearly $4 billion spent in fiscal year 2011, and the near-doubling of U.S. agents along the border from 9,500 in 2004 to 18,500 in 2011.
The border security requirement also includes a target of 90 percent for the "effectiveness" in apprehensions or turn-backs before the other measures go into effect. A recent report by the Government Accountability Office noted the trouble Homeland Security had in evaluating the number of people who crossed the border, and the same office also noted that the drone program wasn't fully effective because of a lack of trained pilots and equipment.
The bill also would provide more than $50 million for Operation Streamline.
Beyond border enforcement, the legislation would provide a path to citizenship.
The bill would allow undocumented immigrants,who arrived prior to Dec. 31, 2011, to apply for legal status; create new immigration visas for both skilled and unskilled workers; and establish a waiting period that could require those illegally in the country to wait as long as 13 years before attaining citizenship.
People in the United States illegally who are looking to gain citizenship would first have to apply for registered provisional status. That would be the first step toward getting a green card 10 years later and, later still, citizenship.
Provisional status applicants would face assessed taxes, a $500 penalty and an application fee. If they had to reapply to renew their provisional status, another $500 fee would be assessed.
There are other fees throughout the bill, including in the expanded visa program and employer accountability measures.
The legislation was officially introduced early Tuesday morning, but recent events, including the bombing of the Boston Marathon, as well as the vote on a package of gun control bills, kept the sponsors from speaking about their legislation until Thursday.
During the press conference with the Gang of Eight, Schumer said the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold the first hearing on Friday, followed by a second hearing on Monday. However, the bill won't go through the Senate's arduous committee debates and amendment process until May.