Pitfalls ahead for immigration planSouth Dakota’s senators cautiously optimistic about ‘framework,’ await details.
WASHINGTON — The release of a new bipartisan Senate plan to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws and a policy address announced Tuesday by President Barack Obama have launched dramatic new momentum on a long-stalled issue.
Now the hard part begins.
The blueprint unveiled by senators Monday amid warm bipartisan unity settled some of the most difficult questions that have bedeviled efforts to change immigration laws, particularly by endorsing a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.
But it left unanswered dozens of key questions, all of which must be meticulously negotiated in the coming weeks under competing political pressures.
Both of South Dakota’s senators said they are optimistic but wary of what so far is just the outline of a proposal.
“The bipartisan Senate framework is a good start, but this is just a proposal,” said Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D. “I am waiting for the legislation to be drafted. I look forward to responsible debate and practical solutions.”
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said he, too, is “looking forward to a detailed bill.”
“Our immigration system is broken, and we should take steps to fix it. What the group put forward on Monday is simply a framework, a broad outline,” Thune said. “This is a long overdue conversation. We can’t continue to postpone this discussion. We want to do it in a humane way. We have to recognize, too, this has a profound impact on our economy.” In separate calls with reporters, both men said: “The devil is in the details.” Both senators said the greatest difficulty will be sorting out how to address those immigrants already living in the country illegally. “It is impossible to deport 11 million people,” Johnson said.
Thune said perhaps that population might be offered “some temporary worker status to enable them to come out of the shadows.” Ultimately, though, he said they should have to go through the full formal process to gain legal status or citizenship.
“They’ve got to go back, get in line and do it the way everybody else is,” Thune said. “Otherwise you create disincentives for people to come here legally.”
Nobody thinks getting a bill passed will be easy.
“We still have a long way to go,” Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said Monday, while calling the broad framework a major breakthrough.
“A first step in what will continue to be difficult — but achievable,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
The politics for passage are quite treacherous, with a number of key Republicans already labeling this latest iteration of immigration proposals as amnesty for the nation’s 11 million illegal residents. But even before the group of four Democrats and four Republicans can focus on the persistent GOP opposition, they must translate their broad statement of principles on the issue into a detailed bill that can withstand intense legislative scrutiny.
That means tackling a number of extremely difficult issues by the end of March, when the group has said it hopes to draft a bill. A bipartisan group is also working on legislation in the House, but most proponents believe legislative action will start in the Democratic-held Senate.
For instance, the Senate plan calls for offering illegal immigrants the chance to quickly achieve probationary legal residency, provided they register with the government and pay a fine and back taxes. But it does not outline how large a fine or how long the applicants would have to pay off their taxes.
“I think the question is, how broad will the road to citizenship be?” said Ai-Jen Poo, director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. “We have to make sure that it’s not so expensive and onerous that it doesn’t leave millions of people in limbo for an extended period of time.”
More critical to the coming debate is the senators’ requirement that illegal immigrants could not seek a green card — the first step to full citizenship — until the U.S.-Mexican border is secure and other enforcement measures are in place. The measures include a system for employers to verify the legal status of workers and a new way to track legal visa holders.
But the framework is silent on how federal officials would certify that the border is secure. It envisions the creation of a commission of governors, attorneys general and others living along the border to “make a recommendation regarding when the bill’s security measure outlined in the legislation are completed.” But it is not clear whether that recommendation would be considered advisory or would by law allow those with probationary status to seek permanent residency.
The commission, which would probably include immigration hardliners elected to statewide office in recent years in Arizona and elsewhere, has already emerged as a potential flash point, making immigrants’ advocates and some Democrats deeply nervous.