WASHINGTON (AP) — To some conservatives, it’s amnesty.
To some immigration advocates, it’s unnecessarily punitive.
The Senate’s new bipartisan immigration bill drew criticism from the right and from the left Tuesday – convincing members of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” that wrote it that they’re on the right track.
“This has something for everybody to hate,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
Said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., “No one gets everything they want.”
Schumer and another leader of the effort, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., met with President Barack Obama on Tuesday to brief him on the bill, a top second-term priority for the president. Obama issued a statement after the meeting supporting the Senate effort and urging action.
“This bill is clearly a compromise, and no one will get everything they wanted, including me. But it is largely consistent with the principles that I have repeatedly laid out for comprehensive reform,” Obama said. “I urge the Senate to quickly move this bill forward and, as I told Sens. Schumer and McCain, I stand willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that comprehensive immigration reform becomes a reality as soon as possible.”
The legislation would dramatically remake the U.S. immigration system, ushering in new visa programs for low- and high-skilled workers, requiring a tough new focus on border security, instituting a new requirement for all employers to check the legal status of their workers, and installing a path to citizenship for 11 million immigrants in the country illegally.
The U.S. immigration system would shift from emphasizing family ties to U.S. citizens or permanent residents in determining who can come to this country, to putting a much bigger focus on their skills or employment opportunities. People who’ve been deported would have the opportunity to come back to the U.S. if their spouses or children are in the country.
Schumer appeared on the Senate floor around 2 a.m. Wednesday to file the 844-page bill. But a press event to roll the bill out was delayed until later in the week after the bombings at the Boston marathon. Nonetheless, outside groups and other senators already had plenty to say.
To some on the left, the details of the path to citizenship were emerging as a concern. It would take 13 years, the first 10 of those in a provisional legal status during which immigrants would not have access to federal benefits. Immigrants would have to pay $2,000 in fines plus hundreds more in fees, and outstanding taxes. No one with a felony conviction or more than three misdemeanors would be eligible, and no one who entered the country after Dec. 31, 2011, could apply.
“The proposed legislation falls short by placing unnecessary obstacles and delays in the path to citizenship and could unfairly exclude some of the 11 million aspiring Americans who are our neighbors, friends, family and fellow-worshippers,” said Bishop Ricardo McClin, pastor of the Church of God Restoration in Kissimmee, Fla., and a member of PICO National Network, a faith-based organizing network. “PICO will be pressing for changes to make sure that the path to citizenship is real for the families in our congregations.”
The path to citizenship also is contingent on various border security “triggers” first being met, an approach Obama administration officials and others have criticized.
Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., defended the approach, which was sought by Republicans.
“Let me just tell you something. This was the price that Democrats had to pay to make this a bipartisan bill. And it’s not too high a price,” Durbin said.
On the other side, some Republicans were claiming that the bill amounted to a grant of amnesty for people in the country illegally, while opening a floodgate to immigration that could drive down wages for U.S. workers.
“The amount of immigration is going to be far more than most Americans think,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. He predicted that once the facts on the bill are known, the Senate might reject it. “Matter of fact, I don’t think it’s going to become law as written. It’s far more monumental than people realize,” Sessions said.
At the same time, the bill was getting plenty of support from business, labor, immigration rights groups and others. Many were eager to rally behind legislation that they see as representing the best chance in more than a quarter-century for Congress to enact meaningful immigration reforms even if imperfect.
“I don’t think there’s anybody out there that can say this is my dream legislation,” said Clarissa Martinez, director of immigration at National Council of La Raza. “But I think that it’s important to keep the whole in perspective, and where we’re trying to go.”
Members of the Gang of Eight were working to sell the bill to various constituents. At one meeting Tuesday with representatives from about a dozen outside groups, Republicans in the group ticked off the bill’s benefits: it doesn’t cost the federal government money, won’t undermine American workers, and “the pall of illegality will be removed and we can get on with the business of improving the economy. And we agree with all that,” said one attendee, Daniel Garza, executive director of the LIBRE Initiative, a center-right organization that advocates for Hispanics.
The bill is expected to contain expenditures of around $17 billion, mostly for border security measures including hiring 3,500 new Customs agents, but should bring in more than that in fines and other revenue, according to a Senate aide Tuesday who spoke on condition of anonymity because the bill had not been released.
The Congressional Budget Office will have to analyze the legislation and confirm those figures, but lawmakers and aides have pledged that the bill won’t cost taxpayers and they’ll increase fees or fines in the legislation if it looks like it might.
The last serious effort to remake the immigration system, pushed by President George W. Bush, failed on the Senate floor in 2007. The biggest difference this time around is changed public sentiment in favor of reform, McCain said.
A new Associated Press-GfK poll shows 63 percent, including majorities across party lines, support providing a way for immigrants in the U.S. to become U.S. citizens. The poll was conducted by telephone April 11-15 among 1,004 adults and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.9 points.
Associated Press writer Josh Lederman contributed to this report.