WASHINGTON – An eagerly awaited immigration overhaul from a bipartisan group of senators arrived early Wednesday, an 844-page bill that both the political left and right now see as the best chance in decades to achieve fix a broken immigration system.
The business community welcomed the legislation as an economic priority that would establish new guest worker programs, while immigration advocates see the opportunity to provide a 13-year path to legal status for the estimated 11 million people who entered this country illegally or overstayed visas.
The Senate was kept open until shortly after 2 a.m. when the legislation was filed by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) on behalf of the eight senators, including fellow Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado, as well as Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Marco Rubio of Florida and Jeff Flake of Arizona, said Fallon.
“Our bipartisan proposal is a starting point, and will be strengthened by good-faith input and ideas from across the ideological spectrum,” the group of eight senators said in a joint statement.
Conservative voices swiftly emerged to give prominence to the effort, nudging reluctant Republican senators who have opposed past immigration reform proposals largely over the prospect of providing citizenship to those here without proper paperwork – which many in the party have derided as a form of amnesty.
GOP leaders want to shift their approach on an issue that is a top priority for the Latino electorate, which abandoned the party last November.
“It is high time that Congress act to reform immigration and visa laws that are diminishing our country’s competitive position in the global economy and wasting precious resources for no good reason,” said Rupert Murdoch, who is the chairman and CEO of News Corp., and a co-chair, along with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and executive J.W. “Bill” Marriott, of the Partnership for a New American Economy.
“We are very encouraged by the bipartisan commitment emerging in Washington to fix our nation's broken immigration system,” said Marriott, the executive chairman of Marriott International, who said his company celebrates the achievements of immigrants “by championing improved access to the American Dream.”
The National Retail Federation called this a “historic” moment, and one that is “long overdue and is truly an economic and workforce priority,” said the federation’s president and chief executive Matthew Shay.
Longtime immigration advocates were equally eager to start the debate, even as they began noting shortcomings of the legislation they hope to change.
“Although it’s not the bill we would have written - it represents a strong bipartisan agreement and an excellent start to the coming debate,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an advocacy group.
Eliseo Medina, secretary-treasurer of the powerful SEIU union, said the bill “sets the stage for a debate over how we can produce a bipartisan solution that honors our American values and strengthens our economy. This legislation is long overdue and there is no question that our immigration system is broken.”
The far-reaching legislative package would tighten border security, increase visas for foreign workers and toughen penalties against American employers who hire undocumented workers.
Over a 13-year horizon, immigrants without legal status, who have not committed a serious crime and meet other criteria, would be able to obtain work permits and eventually apply to become permanent residents and U.S. citizens, and payment of back taxes, fees and a $2,000 fine.
The bill, titled the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, represents the political trade-offs that have been needed to bring both parties to the table, and is the result of a monthslong negotiating session between the eight senators, and various labor and business groups.
The immigration system will be transformed over the decade from one that prefers immigrant workers, over those with family ties. New guest worker programs would be established for low-skilled house cleaners and other professions, as well as in the agricultural industry. Employers would have five years to verify the legal status of all workers. Farm workers and young adults in college who were brought to the U.S. as children would have an expedited path to legal status in five years.
On Capitol Hill the reaction was more muted as lawmakers step carefully into what has long been a heated and polarizing debate.
Top leaders of both parties were slow to react, but Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid called the “strong bill” a “compromise.”
“I will do everything in my power to get this legislation across the finish line,” Reid promised.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled hearings on the draft for Friday, when Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano is expected to testify before the Senate panel about the far-reaching proposal. Another hearing is set for Monday.
Committee members will consider changes to the draft in early May, and debate by the full Senate could follow soon after.
In the House, a separate bipartisan group of eight lawmakers welcomed the Senate effort, as it continued working on its own bill.
"We have an extraordinary opportunity to resolve a tough set of public policy, border, and immigration issues and for Republicans and Democrats to work together like adults to do it,” said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), the chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Immigration Task Force and a member of the bipartisan House group. “We as a nation cannot let this important opportunity to make progress and improve things for everyone slip away.”
Liberal lawmakers, in particular, have bristled over the Southwestern border security components, which will provide $5 billion for aerial drone surveillance to capture and turn back illegal crossings, and to continue installing a double-layer fence.
Advocates for immigrants also noted the loss of family visas for adult siblings of U.S. citizens that are important to Latino and Asian American families, as well as the lack of provisions to allow citizens to sponsor their same-sex foreign partners for citizenship.
“Several key provisions miss the mark or are missing entirely from the draft bill,” said Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights.
The day also brought immigration advocates and evangelical leaders to the Hill for an assembly and prayer in the first-ever “Evangelical Day of Prayer and Action on Immigration Reform,” another nod to the growing interest from groups aligned with the political right in the issue.