WASHINGTON —The so-called “Gang of Eight” of U.S. senators publicly rolled out their immigration plan on Thursday, which involves cracking down on Mexican border security, offering a path to citizenship after more than 10 years and expanding guest worker programs in areas ranging from the sciences to agriculture.
The group of four Republicans and four Democrats argued that a majority of both parties want to fix the nation’s “broken” immigration system. But Sens. David Vitter, R-La., and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., also held a news conference Thursday arguing that the nation must first focus on fixing border security problems before Congress should even consider “amnesty.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said it is tragic that a “nation of immigrants” is divided on the immigration issue.
“It is not good for this nation to have millions of people living in shadows,” Rubio said, later adding, “Leaving things the way they are — that’s the real amnesty.”
Apart from Rubio, the “gang” leaders on the issue are Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.; John McCain, R-Ariz.; and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who all argued the legislation is not perfect, but fair and can be modified.
“The border security triggers are tough, but achievable,” Schumer said. “The path-to-citizenship requirements are tough, but reachable.”
The Gang of Eight was publicly backed Thursday by a mix across the political spectrum ranging from AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka to Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist.
Still, those like Vitter argued the nation’s porous border issues must be fixed separately before discussing “citizenship.”
He spoke out against any comprehensive approach, like the last time Congress addressed immigration in 1986.
“We’re very concerned that this bill is the same fundamentally flawed model from the past. It’s an immediate amnesty with promises of enforcement,” Vitter said. “We’ve tried that model before and it’s failed miserably before. We all want to solve this problem and not continue it, not perpetuate it.”
The legislation would allow many of the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants to obtain “registered provisional immigrant status” about six months after the bill becomes law.
“Almost all of the illegals we’re talking about, at the front end, get a new legal status … before anything is measured or before anything is for sure,” Vitter said.
Vitter also brought out border sheriffs and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, who complained about the alleged lack of border enforcement under President Barack Obama.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., said she wants to tackle immigration reform but that she still has to review the legislation as proposed before she can decide whether she will support it.
“We most certainly need immigration reform,” Landrieu said Thursday. “The economy really depends on us getting it fixed.”
The 844-page bill would require the Department of Homeland Security to develop a border-security plan within six months that will allow for the use of automated drones, about 3,500 new Customs agents, additional border fencing and more manpower from the National Guard.
The legislation creates goals of 100 percent surveillance of the Mexican border and to catch or turn back 90 percent of those attempting to cross illegally. If those goals are not met in five years, then a Southern Border Security Commission would be formed to fix the remaining issues.
The plans must be in place before any illegal immigrants can receive green cards.
Once the border security plans are finalized, many of those living in the U.S. illegally can then obtain “registered provisional immigrant status” if they have lived in the country continuously since before 2012.
They must pass criminal background checks to receive the status and pay a $500 fine. The status allows them to live and work legally in the country but without receiving federal benefits.
After 10 years in provisional status, immigrants can seek a green card and eventually apply for citizenship if they are up-to-date on their income taxes and pay a $1,000 fine. They also must meet work requirements and learn English. Those brought to the country as children would be able to get green cards in five years and citizenship immediately thereafter.
“You’re going to have to earn the right to be an American,” Graham said. “It’s fair, it’s tough, but it’s available.”
Within five years, all employers also must implement the E-Verify program to electronically verify their workers’ legal status. As part of that, noncitizens will be required to show photo identification that must match with a photo in the E-Verify system.
The legislation also lifts the cap on available visas for high-skilled foreign workers and also creates a new agriculture worker visa program.
McCain said the United States is a “nation with a conscience” and that Congress must work to do away with a system that encourages “unscrupulous human traffickers” who leave people for dead in the desert.
But McCain also acknowledged there are political motivations for the Republican Party, which has failed to win the support of many Hispanic voters. Immigration reform would help level the playing field, he said.
“It puts us on a level where we can compete in the battle of ideas,” McCain said. “A little straight talk, right now, we are not competitive.”