A bipartisan proposal to overhaul the nation’s immigration system received mixed reaction Tuesday as some details emerged.
The Senate bill, which is expected to be released in full today, would put an estimated 11 million immigrants living in the country illegally on a 13-year path to U.S. citizenship. Doing so would cost each eligible immigrant $2,000 in fines and fees, and would begin only after steps are taken to secure the border, according to an outline released Tuesday.
Mike Gempler, executive director of the Yakima-based Washington Grower’s League, said he generally favors the legislation, but was hesitant to make a full assessment prior to the release of the entire bill. Earlier this year, Gempler’s organization — along with other nonprofits, businesses and former government officials — signed the Washington Compact encouraging Congress to take action this year.
“It looks like it’s going to offer a lot of opportunities for people to come here to work and makes it a lot easier to do so,” Gempler said.
But skepticism comes from very different viewpoints. Bob West, the leader of the conservative group Grassroots Yakima, which adamantly opposes a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and Maria Cuevas, a professor of Chicano studies at Yakima Valley Community College and proponent of comprehensive immigration reform, both said the bill is weak.
Based on the outline, which would give those who qualify a 10-year provisional legal status under which they could work in the United States but not apply for federal benefits, Cuevas said it favors employers over immigrants and their families.
After 10 years, they could seek green cards conferring permanent legal status, and three years after that they could petition for citizenship. Immigrants would be barred from seeking citizenship if they have been convicted of a felony or three or more misdemeanors, and no one who arrived after Dec. 31, 2011, would be eligible under the legislation.
“All the emphasis is on keeping people out but providing a more palatable way for employers to access immigrant labor,” Cuevas said.
A major emphasis of the bill is to increase the number of green cards issued for employment to about 45 to 50 percent, whereas currently only about 15 percent are issued for employment purposes and the vast majority stem from family ties.
West said the legislation would make it easier for more foreign workers to take jobs that could otherwise be filled by U.S. residents and citizens who are currently unable to find work. He said provisions that would require Homeland Security to spend billions in improving security along the Mexico border would take too long to implement and are likely empty promises.
“As bad as the outline looks, it looks like it may be sugar-coated compared to the actual bill,” West said.
Under the proposal, employers nationwide would be under a mandate to implement within five years E-Verify, a free federal database that checks the legal work eligibility of job-seekers.
Gempler said he believes some parts of the legislation are purely political, such as the requirement to increase border security, because security has already been increased in recent years while illegal crossings have declined. On the other hand, he said a 13-year path to citizenship, which some groups attacked as arbitrary, is fair.
“Citizenship is a big deal and it doesn’t just get handed out,” Gempler said. “I don’t think it’s too long.”
Cuevas said the number represents another bureaucratic obstacle for immigrants who came here illegally because the system was already too difficult to navigate. She said the long time frame doesn’t ease confusion for them or their families.
“Their whole lives are sort of based on contingency,” Cuevas said. “How do you plan for a future if you don’t know if you’re going to be here?”
West believes the bill is too generous.
“You get to keep your job and you get to stay here,” West said. “In our vernacular, that’s amnesty.”
The bill represents the first major attempt by Congress to reform the country’s immigration system since 2007, when a bipartisan effort failed, also in the Senate. President Barack Obama also issued a statement Tuesday, saying it is mostly reflective of his goals.
“This bill is clearly a compromise, and no one will get everything they wanted, including me,” Obama said in the news release. “But it is largely consistent with the principles that I have repeatedly laid out for comprehensive reform.”
In a statement issued to the Yakima Herald-Republic late Tuesday, a spokesman for Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell said she was “encouraged” by the proposal.
“She supports comprehensive immigration reform that restores common sense to the immigration system by strengthening border security and developing a realistic plan for the millions of undocumented immigrants here in America,” the spokesman said.
Attempts to get comments from U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Pasco, were unsuccessful.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold hearings on the bill Friday and Monday and likely move to amend and vote on it in May, with action on the Senate floor expected later in the summer.
• Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.
• Mike Faulk can be reached at 509-577-7675 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/Mike_Faulk.