Immigration Plan Includes Controversial Path To Citizenship

The Senate "Gang of Eight" released the summary its immigration overhaul plan on Tuesday. David Welna talks to Robert Siegel about the details.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Later this evening, a landmark bill is to be filed in the U.S. Senate. Its aim: the most extensive revamping of the nation's immigration system in nearly three decades. The legislation comes from the bipartisan group of senators known as the Gang of Eight, and much of it reflects compromises between Democrats and Republicans, business and labor, and growers and farm workers.

Joining me from the Capitol to talk about what this massive bill would do is NPR congressional correspondent David Welna. Hi, David.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: And how sweeping is this proposal? We know its legislative language is still being hammered out, but do we know essentially what's in it?

WELNA: It really boils down to addressing three major concerns: One is the sense that the last big immigration bill signed by Ronald Reagan only encouraged more illegal immigration and that the U.S.-Mexico border remains far too porous. Another is the reality of some 11 million people living in this country with no legal status and who are not about to leave. And finally, employers say the current system of temporary work visas falls far short of what's needed.

SIEGEL: Let's talk about what's probably the most controversial part of this bill, the path to citizenship for those 11 million people who are currently considered unlawful immigrants. Is this something that critics might call an amnesty?

WELNA: Oh, I'm sure many will call it that, and some already have. But this is a far more arduous path to citizenship than the one for the three million immigrants benefiting from the 1986 amnesty. This bill's path is only available to immigrants who got here before the end of 2011. They have to initially pay $500, pay back taxes and have criminal background checks to get registered provisional immigrant status, as they're calling it, which allows them to stay in the country but not get any means-tested federal benefits, including Obamacare.

They have to renew that after six years, paying another $500. And then after waiting 10 years in all, they can apply for legal permanent resident status, which is commonly known as getting a green card, by paying another $1,000.

And then they have to wait at least another three years before applying for citizenship. So 13 years, at least, before any of these people could actually become voting citizens.

SIEGEL: David, why would conservatives in Congress who have voted against immigration overhauls in the past decide to vote for this one?

WELNA: Well, conservatives say they want the borders secure before anything else is done on the immigration front, and this bill does put a big emphasis on further tightening border enforcement. It calls for nearly $5 billion to be spent upgrading border surveillance and it sets a goal of the border patrol intercepting 90 percent of those trying to sneak in illegally.

It also requires, over a four-year period, that every employer in the country use the so-called e-Verify system to make sure every employee is indeed eligible to work in the U.S. That's going to mean everyone, including you and me, will have to have official photos filed that can be checked online by prospective employers. I talked today with Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican senator who's trying to get fellow conservatives onboard with this bill. He thinks these measures will help.

SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: What we have crafted is a starting point, and from that point, I encourage my other 92 colleagues to get involved and to offer ideas. I hope sincerely that those who have problems with it don't just offer objections but offer solutions.

SIEGEL: That's Senator Rubio of Florida. This bill, David, is also a very big revision of legal immigration rules and foreign worker programs. It's been a stumbling block in the past. Why isn't it a stumbling block this time?

WELNA: Well, I think the biggest change from when an attempted immigration overhaul collapsed six years ago is that organized labor has changed its strategy. Instead of rejecting foreign workers, unions now see them as potential recruits as long as American workers are protected by pay and hiring safeguards. So the AFL-CIO and U.S. Chamber of Commerce have agreed on this bill's plan, which lets 25,000 highly skilled foreign workers and 20,000 low-skilled workers get visas in the first year. And those numbers could go up according to demand. But all this, of course, is subject to changes once the bill hits the Senate floor, and that will most likely be sometime in the summer.

SIEGEL: OK. NPR's David Welna on Capitol Hill. Thank you, David.

WELNA: You're quite welcome, Robert.

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