Debate Over ‘Amnesty’ Represents Immigration Fault Line

A Senate plan to rewrite U.S. immigration law has stoked a years-old debate over allowing undocumented residents a chance to become citizens, a measure viewed by opponents as rewarding lawbreakers with “amnesty” and undercutting American workers.

Though Republican opposition to creating a citizenship path for the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants has waned since the November election, the issue still divides the party. Some lawmakers and interest groups criticized the bipartisan Senate plan released yesterday, centering on their opposition to amnesty for those in the country illegally.

“There will be 11 million, maybe more, given immediate amnesty” and placed “on a guaranteed path to citizenship,” said Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, a Republican and the chief opponent of the Senate proposal. “The amount of immigration is going to be far more than most Americans think.”

The Senate proposal from a group of four Democrats and four Republicans would allow undocumented immigrants who pay at least $2,000 in fines and meet other criteria to apply for citizenship after more than a decade in the U.S., though only if specific border security benchmarks are reached. The four Republican members insisted that border security must be improved before any undocumented people could become citizens.

Arizona Senator John McCain, one of the Republicans in the group, yesterday told reporters that tightened border security is “vital” and would help attract Republican support.

Rubio’s Views

Florida Senator Marco Rubio is among the Republicans trying to pitch a citizenship path to reluctant party members. As part of that effort, Rubio has been seeking to differentiate his group’s plan from a 1986 law that made 3 million undocumented workers eligible for legal status.

The proposal will address the “11 million undocumented people living under de facto amnesty” right now, Rubio said today in a statement after the bill’s text was made publicly available early this morning.

He added that the plan would deal with the undocumented population “in a tough but humane way that is fair to those trying to come here the right way and linked to achieving several security triggers.”

Rubio’s stance on the immigration issue embodies an attempt by party leaders since November to reconnect with Hispanic voters; 71 percent voted for President Barack Obama’s re-election. Almost two-thirds of Americans, 64 percent, support a citizenship path for the undocumented, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted April 5-8.

Republican Division

Still, the party remains split over the issue.

Texas Senator John Cornyn, the chamber’s second-ranking Republican, said he was skeptical of the citizenship path proposal because it hinged on “promises that may or may not be possible to keep” of improved U.S. border security.

“We need to be realistic in terms of what this present Congress could bind future Congresses to in terms of goals five years and 10 years down the road,” Cornyn said yesterday in an interview.

Sessions predicted that the citizenship path wasn’t “going to become law as written,” adding that he hadn’t decided whether to try to alter the bill or oppose it.

The comments signify that mustering the 60 votes needed to pass the plan in the Senate will be difficult.

Democratic senators, including New York’s Charles Schumer, met privately today with representatives of immigration-overhaul advocacy groups and progressive organizations to hear their thoughts on the proposal and urge them to support it.

‘30,000 Feet’

Attendees raised concerns that the Senate proposal doesn’t include protection for same-sex couples, as well as about revisions to family-unification visas and reductions in a visa category that aims to boost the diversity of countries from which people immigrate to the U.S., said Angela Kelley, vice president for immigration policy at the Democratic-leaning Center for American Progress in Washington.

Still, “the conversation was mainly at 30,000 feet and it was largely very sunny,” Kelley said.

Concerns about whether border security triggers were so stringent that they would prevent people from becoming citizens and about racial-profiling prohibitions in the bill also were raised, said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an immigrant advocacy group.

‘Real Crisis’

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation, today in a statement called the bill “another step toward addressing a real crisis.” Still, Trumka said there were “several details in the bill that cause unintended, but serious, harm to immigrant workers and the broader labor market.”

The PICO National Network, a group of religious organizations that supports a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, says the measure places “unnecessary obstacles and delays in the path to citizenship and could unfairly exclude some of the 11 million aspiring Americans,” as Bishop Ricardo McClin, pastor of the Church of God Restoration in Kissimmee, Florida, wrote in a statement.

“Of course, we’re open to some changes,” Schumer told reporters after the meeting, adding that he would encourage those with concerns “not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

An immigration-law rewrite faces longer odds in the Republican-run House, where a separate bipartisan group is drafting a proposal which could be released later this month.

House Proposal

In a statement today, members of the House group saluted the Senate proposal and said they had made “substantial progress” on their plan, which they said would establish “a tough but fair process that respects the rule of law.”

Since the last major immigration revision was approved in 1986, lawmakers have unsuccessfully tried several times to revamp U.S. immigration policy, most recently in 2007.

Representative Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, yesterday described the Senate plan as an “amnesty proposal” that he said “will encourage even more illegal immigration.”

Interest groups opposed to a citizenship path are marshaling their resources to combat the Senate proposal, concentrating on getting their members and allies to call Capitol Hill and make sure lawmakers know where they stand.

“Our goal is to make the American public aware that there’s nothing in it for them,” said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports limits on immigration. He said the proposal includes “all sorts of goodies for people who broke our laws and people who want to hire cheap labor.”

Radio Hosts

FAIR is hosting 46 talk-radio hosts in a Washington hotel today and tomorrow who will broadcast live in opposition to the measure as the group’s activists lobby lawmakers. Some hosts will be asking listeners to call home-state lawmakers, in a reprise of efforts that helped sink the 2007 immigration legislation when congressional Republicans split with Republican President George W. Bush.

FAIR also plans to use social media and communications with its 250,000 members to alert them to the immigration bill and urge them to contact their lawmakers.

On the website of Arlington, Virginia-based NumbersUSA, which also opposes the immigration bill, visitors can click on the home page to send a fax to their member of Congress, their senators and Obama. The group maintains that immigration should be restricted at a time of high unemployment.

Call Lawmakers

“We will be doing everything we can to help the 20 million unemployed Americans have a voice and be heard in this debate,” said Roy Beck, NumbersUSA’s president.

The group plans to contact its 1.8 million members and have them call their lawmakers and friends. NumbersUSA also plans to target ads in areas represented by undecided senators.

Tea-Party groups may also join in the fight, Beck said. “Once the costs of this are looked at, I don’t think you’re going to see any Tea Parties supporting it,” he said. “Their main thing is less government spending, smaller government.”

Some already are weighing in. The Tea Party Patriots asked supporters yesterday to go to their senators’ offices and wave a flag, a sign or both, and then deliver a letter. They object to the process, saying lawmakers are negotiating behind closed doors and will hold just one hearing with no amendments. “We aren’t asking for a lot,” the note said. “Just to be represented rather than ruled over.”

McCain and Schumer said there will be full and open hearings with ample opportunity to debate and amend the bill.

Provisional Status

Under the senators’ plan, immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally before Dec. 31, 2011, can apply for provisional status after passing a criminal background check and paying back taxes and a fine. After 10 years and more fines, those people could apply for a green card, signifying permanent resident status, if they learn English and maintain regular employment in the U.S., according to a 17-page summary.

In a statement issued by the White House after the meeting with the two senators, Obama praised the measure as a set of “common-sense steps that the majority of Americans support.”

The plan for securing the border must, within five years, result in an apprehension rate of at least 90 percent in “high-risk” sectors where more than 30,000 people are caught a year. If that rate isn’t met, the proposal would establish a commission of border-state officials and border-security experts to recommend ways to achieve the 90 percent goal.

“We’re not going to get every vote, but we hope to get a significant number of Republicans and Democrats to send a message to the House that there is very strong support,” McCain said.

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