A bipartisan group of senators negotiating a rewrite of U.S. immigration law has agreed on border-protection principles that would create a foundation for legislative action, according to people familiar with the talks.
The accord links mandates for tougher border control to opening a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. The connection is viewed by Republican leaders as essential to crafting a deal that would advance legislation this year.
Leaders of the group say the remaining challenge is putting their agreement in written form for consideration by the full Senate as soon as next month. Their talks have unfolded as a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House of Representatives works on its own immigration blueprint, while Democrats in the lower chamber plan to unveil a separate proposal today.
“We are closer now than we have been in 25 years for serious immigration reform,” Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, a Democratic member of the Senate group, told reporters in Washington after speaking to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus yesterday on progress by the negotiators. “It’s a question of drafting, of actually writing the bill.”
Talks in closed-door sessions have also dealt with other aspects considered crucial to a broader accord, such as visas for field hands and other low-skilled workers, as well as the path to provide undocumented immigrants with legal status.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, said after meeting with members of the group that he expects to “have legislative language to review by the time of the hearing” he plans on the matter for April 17.
Issues that still present hurdles include visas for farmworkers who pick most of the nation’s fruits and vegetables as well as for low-skilled workers in other economic sectors.
Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said in an interview after the Hispanic Caucus meeting yesterday that representatives of farmworkers and growers had reached a “tentative agreement” on an agricultural-visa accord. He declined to provide details of that agreement.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest union organization, had earlier reached an accord over visas for low-skilled workers in services ranging from groundskeeping and plant nurseries to housekeeping and building maintenance. At the same time, Representative Raul Labrador, an Idaho Republican who has been instrumental in the House negotiations, has cautioned that the agreement weighs too heavily in favor of unions.
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.
Since November, when President Barack Obama won 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, Republican Party leaders have called for a more sympathetic approach toward immigration in an attempt to reengage the fastest-growing part of the nation’s electorate.
Yet Republican leaders such as Senator Marco Rubio of Florida have remained mindful of that base of supporters who traditionally have viewed any relief for undocumented immigrants as a form of amnesty for law-breakers.
Rubio and the other senators have tentatively agreed to concepts that draw a direct 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 get $3 billion and have six months to draft and implement a five-year plan to achieve those goals.
No immigrants could gain any provisional legal status until the plan is in place, the person said. A commission of officials from Southwest border states and municipalities would be created if the department failed to meet the goals after five years.
The objective, the second person familiar with the talks said, is to provide achieveable performance measures that link border security with opening a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
The next step toward citizenship couldn’t be taken until the Homeland Security Department submitted a plan to secure the border, the person said. The initial granting of provisional legal status for undocumented immigrants would also be tied to the department’s success in implementing that plan.
The agency would have no leeway to begin granting permanent residency status until both tougher border controls and a system of verifying that companies aren’t employing undocumented workers is in place. In addition, 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.
Under the plan, one of the people said, the granting of green cards couldn’t resume even after 10 years if the other conditions hadn’t been met. It could take 20 years for some to obtain legal status under the rules in the accord.