Senators working on a rewrite of U.S. immigration law have resolved some of their most contentious issues, putting them within reach of unveiling legislation as soon as next week.
The bipartisan group of eight senators settled disputes over visa caps and wage levels for a farmworker program, devised a proposal to enhance border security and agreed to details of a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented workers in the U.S., according to senators and people familiar with the talks.
“I feel like we’ve come together in a fashion that will hold and that we’ll have a good product to submit to the Senate for their consideration,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who is part of the negotiating group. “People will have a chance to amend it, they will certainly have a chance to read it, they’ll have a chance to make it better or try to kill it. But I think we’re going to produce a product that I will be proud of.”
In a sign that a final product is near, the group canceled a planned meeting yesterday, and a person familiar with the talks said only staff-level work and bill-drafting remains. The group plans to unveil its plan April 16, according to a Senate aide familiar with negotiations unauthorized to speak publicly.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said after meeting with members of the group April 9 that he expects to “have legislative language to review” in time for an April 17 hearing.
“I wouldn’t say it’s a done deal yet, but I’m very optimistic,” Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO labor group, said yesterday in an interview with Bloomberg Television’s Peter Cook for “Capitol Gains,” airing April 14. “The Gang of Eight has done some very, very good work. That makes me optimistic, but optimism isn’t a plan.”
Once the legislation is unveiled, it will encounter challenges to passage. Senate leaders have pledged an open amendment process in the Judiciary Committee, as well as on the Senate floor.
Opponents, such as Senator Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican who has said the measure will cost U.S. workers jobs and damage the economy, are planning to do what they can to thwart the Senate group’s proposal.
Advocates of revising immigration law acknowledge that getting the 60 votes needed to push a bill through the Senate will be difficult, and that passing the legislation in the Republican-controlled House will be even tougher.
Still, political momentum is working in favor of an overhaul. President Barack Obama has made an immigration-law rewrite a second-term priority, and almost two-thirds of Americans, 64 percent, support a citizenship path, according to A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted April 5-8.
In a question measuring intensity on the issue, the poll found a six-point gap between those who strongly support allowing those in the U.S. illegally to gain citizenship -- 29 percent -- and those who oppose it -- 35 percent.
Members of the Senate group over the past several days have said parts of their proposal that have been resolved or are almost complete, including the farmworker program.
“We have a wage-and-cap agreement,” Senator Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat and advocate of revamping the program for allocating visas to farm workers, said yesterday in an interview at the Capitol.
Agricultural labor has been one of the more contentious areas for senators to work out in an immigration rewrite proposal. Those representing larger growers, led by the American Farm Bureau Federation, the biggest U.S. farmer group, have pushed for more visas and lower wage rates than the United Farmworkers Union wants. The farmworkers union is the immigrant-worker advocacy group founded by Cesar Chavez.
While the Farm Bureau has said a flexible visa program is necessary to allow enough visas so that harvest workforces are adequate, the farmworkers’ union has said too large of a program would push down wages and encourage employer abuses.
Feinstein declined to provide details of the accord, saying only that she participated in six hours of talks April 10 on the topic with other senators, farm groups and workers’ advocates.
John McCain, an Arizona Republican who is part of the Senate group, said yesterday that the group was “largely in agreement,” on a farmworker proposal, adding that there “may be some details that still need to be worked out.”
Senators also have finished work on a section providing visas for foreigners who receive a graduate degree from a U.S. university in a high-skilled field such as engineering, mathematics or science, McCain said.
“We are wrapping everything up,” McCain said.
The Senate group’s proposal probably will require a trade-off between more job-related visas and an annual allotment of 65,000 visas for adult siblings of naturalized U.S. citizens.
The senators also have agreed on border-protection principles essential to Republican approval of any plan, according to people familiar with the talks. The accord links mandates for tougher border control to opening a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
The question of border control remains central to any agreement for Republicans, whose party has courted support from its core voters with demands for a crackdown on illegal immigration and deportation of undocumented workers.
“It will be fair, it will be hard, and I think the Republican Party has changed on this issue,” Graham said of the agreed-to citizenship path provisions.
Since November, when exit polls showed Obama backed by 71 percent of the Hispanic voters as he won re-election, Republican leaders have called for their party to embrace a more sympathetic approach toward immigration in an attempt to re-engage the fastest-growing part of the nation’s electorate.
At the same time, Republicans such as Senator Marco Rubio of Florida have remained mindful of that base of supporters who have viewed any relief for undocumented immigrants as a form of amnesty for law-breakers.
Rubio and the other senators in the bipartisan group have tentatively agreed to concepts that draw a connection between strengthening the border and granting new rights to the undocumented, according to two people familiar with the senators’ discussions who asked to not be identified in describing the talks.
The principles of the accord would require continuous surveillance of 100 percent of the border, with a 90 percent effectiveness rate for enforcement in high-risk sectors, one person familiar with the talks said. The Homeland Security Department would receive $3 billion and have six months to draft and implement a five-year plan to achieve those goals.
No immigrants could gain provisional legal status until the plan is in place, the person said.
The agency would have no leeway to begin granting permanent residency status until tougher border controls and a system of verifying that companies aren’t employing undocumented workers are in place. Also, the government would have to establish an entry-exit system to ensure that people who enter the U.S. on visas leave when they are supposed to.