WASHINGTON – Amid the initial elation from immigration advocates over a new proposal to overhaul U.S. border control laws was a sense of unease over the 844-page bill’s core provision: a path to citizenship for immigrants living in the country illegally.
Proponents of immigration reform have pushed for decades to allow undocumented immigrants to become legal residents and, ultimately, citizens. But advocates expressed concern Wednesday that the path created by an eight-member bipartisan Senate group is too onerous, expensive and uncertain.
The fear, the advocates said, is that hundreds of thousands — or even millions — of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States will never have the chance to remain in the country legally. Provisions in the bill could make it nearly impossible for “many immigrants to make it to the finish line and become citizens,” said Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center.
The challenge facing advocates is to push lawmakers to find ways to amend the legislation to make the path to citizenship easier without upsetting the delicate political balance and potentially killing the deal.
President Barack Obama has said he expects a “clear path” to citizenship. Administration officials said they will reserve judgment on the details until they have carefully examined the legislation.
Public debate over the proposal is expected to focus heavily on the citizenship component — long a nonstarter among conservative Republicans, many of whom who remain fiercely opposed to granting what they call “amnesty” to the undocumented population.
GOP supporters of the immigration bill, including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, say the proposal allows a path to legal status and citizenship only after rigorous new provisions are in place to enforce control of the border.
But Rubio is already taking heat from conservatives. On Tuesday, several dozen tea party activists demonstrated at some of his Florida offices, and conservative websites charged Wednesday that the bill would distribute free “amnesty” cellphones to some immigrants near the border.
Rubio retorted by calling the phone reports “false and reckless.” In a post on his Senate website, he explained that the devices will go to U.S. citizens near the border to report violence to police and federal agents.
The controversy indicates that Rubio and the three other Republican members of the bipartisan group that authored the proposal will be under immense pressure to strengthen, not weaken, the citizenship requirements.
Under the proposed bill, undocumented immigrants would have to wait 10 years for a chance at permanent legal residency and three more years for citizenship. They would also have to pay at least $2,000 in fines, along with hundreds of dollars in fees and taxes. And they would be required to learn English, pass criminal background checks and prove they have lived continuously in America and have been employed regularly during that time.
Furthermore, the immigrants must have entered the country before Dec. 31, 2011. Advocates said hundreds of thousands of people who have slipped into the United States since then would immediately be ruled ineligible under the Senate’s proposal, meaning those immigrants would continue living in the shadows of society.
Gustavo Torres, executive director of the immigration advocacy group CASA of Maryland, said an estimated 400,000 people would be “immediately undocumented as soon as President Obama signs the bill. This is very problematic for our people.”
In 1986, the last time U.S. immigration laws were thoroughly rewritten, an estimated 2.9 million undocumented aliens were moved to legal status and eventually citizenship, but about the same number were excluded, advocates said.
“Obviously, there are many ways to frustrate and deny citizenship. Cost is one, the length of time to achieve it is another,” said Eliseo Medina, secretary treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, which supports a path to citizenship. “We need to make sure, first of all, that this bill now delivers on the fundamental promise of actually making citizenship available to everyone.”