Bipartisan bill would remake immigration system: 13-year path to U.S. citizenship, fines, fees

By Erica Werner

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, April 16 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

WASHINGTON — The U.S. immigration system would undergo dramatic changes under a bipartisan Senate bill that puts a new focus on prospective immigrants' merit and employment potential, while seeking to end illegal immigration once and for all by creating legal avenues for workers to come here.

The bill would put the 11 million immigrants in the country illegally on a 13-year path to U.S. citizenship that would cost each $2,000 in fines plus additional fees, and would begin only after steps have been taken to secure the border, according to an outline of the measure.

The sweeping legislation also would remake the nation's inefficient legal immigration system, creating new immigration opportunities for tens of thousands of high- and low-skilled workers, as well as a new "merit visa" aimed at bringing people with talents to the U.S. Senators planned to formally introduce the bill Tuesday, but a planned press event including immigration advocates, business groups, religious leaders and others was delayed until later in the week because of the tragedy at the Boston Marathon.

Employers would face tough new requirements to check the legal status of all workers. Billions of dollars would be poured into border security, and millions of people who've been waiting overseas for years, sometimes decades, in legal immigration backlogs would see their cases speeded up.

Overall, the changes represent the most dramatic overhaul to U.S. immigration law in more than a quarter-century, and Congress' first major attempt to confront the polarizing issue since bipartisan legislation in 2007 collapsed on the Senate floor.

"The status quo is unsustainable. The nation's failure to fix its broken immigration system has created what is, in reality, de facto amnesty," Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, and John McCain, R-Ariz., leaders of the effort, wrote in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal Tuesday. "Our bill would establish a tough but fair system for millions of people living in the shadows to come forward and settle their debt to society by fulfilling reasonable requirements to become law-abiding citizens."

Schumer and McCain were to meet with President Barack Obama on Tuesday to brief him on the legislation. It's a top second-term priority for the president.

The bill is the result of months of secretive negotiations among Schumer, McCain and six other lawmakers known as the "Gang of Eight." The others are Democrats Dick Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado, and Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona.

The legislation is a painstaking attempt to balance a focus on border security and legal enforcement sought by Republicans in the group with Democratic priorities like making citizenship widely accessible. Crafting the bill was a time-consuming process of seeking compromise and bringing together traditionally opposed groups, such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, and the United Farm Workers and the American Farm Bureau Federation.

But even harder work lies ahead now that legislative language will become public for other lawmakers and groups on all sides to examine and react to. 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. Republicans in the negotiating group briefed their GOP colleagues on the legislation Monday evening, but a number of Republican senators are already making clear they will not be won over.

In a statement Tuesday Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., complained there should be more hearings.

"Something is truly broken in Washington when the people, the law enforcement officers who protect them, and the people's representatives, have less time to review the bill than the special interests who helped write it," Sessions said.

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