Senators Reach Agreement on Immigration Reform

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—Creating an effective employment verification system to ensure that employers do not hire illegal immigrants in the future, including requiring prospective workers to verify legal status and identity through a non-forgeable electronic system.

—Allowing more low-skill workers into the country and allowing employers to hire immigrants if they can demonstrate they couldn’t recruit a U.S. citizen; and establishing an agricultural worker program.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., applauded the framework and said, “I will do everything in my power to get a bill across the finish line.”

The principles being released Monday are outlined on just over four pages, leaving plenty of details left to fill in. What the senators do call for is similar to Obama’s goals and some past efforts by Democrats and Republicans, since there’s wide agreement in identifying problems with the current immigration system. The most difficult disagreement is likely to arise over how to accomplish the path to citizenship.

In order to satisfy the concerns of Rubio and other Republicans, the senators are calling for the completion of steps on border security and oversight of those here on visas before taking major steps forward on the path to citizenship.

Even then, those here illegally would have to pass background checks and pay fines and taxes in order to qualify for a “probationary legal status” that would allow them to live and work here — but not qualify for federal benefits — before being able to apply for permanent residency, a critical step toward citizenship. Once they are allowed to apply they would do so behind everyone else already in line for a green card within the current immigration system.

That could be a highly cumbersome process, but how to make it more workable is being left to future negotiations. The senators envision a more streamlined process toward citizenship for immigrants brought here as children, and for agricultural workers.

Outside groups including Latino advocacy organizations, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and organized labor were quick to praise the emerging framework. But some also sounded notes of caution.

Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, questioned a proposal by the Senate group to require illegal immigrants to provide proof of employment before they can gain legal status. Trumka said it could exclude millions of workers “who cannot prove employment because they have been forced to work off the clock or have no employer by virtue of being independent contractors.”

Clarissa Martinez, director of immigration and civic engagement at National Council of La Raza, called emergence of the Senate blueprint “extremely positive” but cautioned that the path to citizenship must end up being workable.

“I think the devil’s going to be in the details … people don’t want a process that is so rigorous that those seeking to apply would not be able to get there or would never be able to get there,” she said in an interview.

The American Civil Liberties Union took issue with the proposal to require employers to use an electronic employment-verification system, calling it “a thinly disguised national ID requirement” that would undermine employees’ privacy and lead to discrimination against those “who look or sound ‘foreign.’”

The debate will play out at the start of Obama’s second term, as he aims to spend the political capital afforded him by his re-election victory on an issue that has eluded past presidents and stymied him during his first term despite his promises to the Latino community to act.

For Republicans, the November elections were a stark schooling on the importance of Latino voters, who voted for Obama over Republican Mitt Romney 71 percent to 27 percent, helping ensure Obama’s victory. That led some Republican leaders to conclude that supporting immigration reform with a path to citizenship has become a political imperative.

(Photo: AP)

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