Republicans and four Democrats outlined Monday (Jan. 28) their plan for addressing what has been a hotly debated issue for years as an estimated 11 million illegal, or undocumented, immigrants have made their homes in this country. Congress has not made a serious attempt since 2007 to repair what seemingly everyone acknowledges as a broken immigration system.
In their written framework, the senators -- who include Democrat Charles Schumer of New York and Republican Marco Rubio of Florida -- said they intend to pass a permanent solution that commits the "resources needed to secure the border, modernize and streamline our current legal immigration system, while creating a tough but fair legalization program for individuals who are currently here."
Southern Baptist ethicist Richard Land said he was "very encouraged" by the bipartisan framework.
"Congress does not often exceed my expectations," said Land, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). "But these principles, and this demonstration of bipartisanship by our leaders, certainly have."
President Obama, in a Tuesday (Jan. 29) speech from immigrant-rich Las Vegas, applauded the bipartisan effort, but said he will work to ensure comprehensive reform occurs without delay.
The senators' proposal outlines four legislative keystones:
-- "Create a tough but fair path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants currently living in the United States that is contingent upon securing our borders and tracking whether legal immigrants have left the country when required;
-- "Reform our legal immigration system to better recognize the importance of characteristics that will help build the American economy and strengthen American families;
-- "Create an effective employment verification system that will prevent identity theft and end the hiring of future unauthorized workers; and,
-- "Establish an improved process for admitting future workers to serve our nation's workforce needs, while simultaneously protecting all workers."
Land told Baptist Press the framework is "gratifyingly and remarkably similar to what I and the Evangelical Immigration Table and others have been calling for."
"This provides the parameters that many of us have been working for for some time and shows that there is a critical mass of Republicans and Democrats who are ready to make the compromises necessary to provide a comprehensive immigration reform policy that the American people will support," Land said.
Other members of the Evangelical Immigration Table, a coalition of Christian leaders, also applauded the senators' proposal.
Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, called it "an honest compromise that can move the nation forward in healthy ways."
Robert Gittelson, president of Conservatives for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, acknowledged the "devil is in the details" but said his coalition partners and he are hopeful the senators' proposal "will serve as a fair and broad outline that should hopefully lead to solutions that will once and for all solve the very intractable problems inherent in our broken and antiquated immigration system."
The senators offered only an outline, not legislation. Undoubtedly, the specifics regarding a "path to citizenship" for undocumented immigrants will be a focus of debate.
Their bill, the coalition of senators said, would require undocumented immigrants to register with the government -- as well as pass a background check and pay back taxes and a fine -- to gain "probationary legal status." All enforcement provisions must be final before an immigrant on probation can earn a green card. A commission, which includes governors and attorneys general from Southwestern border states, must make a recommendation about when the security prerequisites are met.
Immigrants on probation will not be able to receive federal benefits and must go to the back of the line for all immigrants, undergo another background check, learn English and civics, and prove they have a history of employment and a current job to seek permanent residency.
Obama said in Las Vegas, "Yesterday, a bipartisan group of senators announced their principles for comprehensive immigration reform, which are very much in line with the principles I've proposed and campaigned on for the last few years. At this moment, it looks like there's a genuine desire to get this done soon. And that's very encouraging.
"But, this time, action must follow. We can't allow immigration reform to get bogged down in endless debate," he said. "If Congress is unable to move forward in a timely fashion, I will send up a bill based on my proposal and insist that they vote on it right away."
Comprehensive immigration reform is essential to growing the economy, as it would utilize the strengths of all willing to invest energies here and ensure companies compete fairly, Obama said.
"If we're truly committed to strengthening our middle class and providing more ladders of opportunity to those who are willing to work hard to make it into the middle class, we've got to fix the system. We have to make sure that every business and every worker in America is playing by the same set of rules," he said. "We have to bring the shadow economy into the light so that everybody's held accountable -- businesses for who they hire and immigrants for getting on the right side of the law. That's common sense."
The audience met his comments with applause on several points aimed at creating a path of citizenship to undocumented immigrants, including children brought here illegally.
Obama encouraged reform that would provide a clear, achievable path to citizenship. For those already here illegally, he said, the process would include paying overdue taxes, passing criminal background checks, learning English and giving precedence to those already playing by the rules.
Strengthening border security, imposing stiff penalties for companies employing undocumented workers and streamlining legal immigration must also be part of the solution, Obama said.
Some Republican senators expressed reservations about their colleagues' framework.
Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, who was part of discussions on the proposal, said he was encouraged by the process but could not sign onto it.
"These guidelines contemplate a policy that will grant special benefits to illegal immigrants based on their unlawful presence in the country," Lee said. "Reforms to our complex and dysfunctional immigration system should not in any way favor those who came here illegally over the millions of applicants who seek to come here lawfully."
At the news conference unveiling the framework, Rubio said, "e clearly want to make sure that the enforcement mechanisms happen. And one of the things that we all hear from people is, 'Well, you're going to do the legalization part, but you won't do the enforcement part.'"
In order to prove a comfort level, Rubio said, the senators will put in place "an understanding that, in fact, the visa entry and exit system -- which is something everyone recognizes needs to be done -- and real progress in terms of having real improvement at the border are two things that are critical and that people need to see certified before we move to the final stage in the process -- not the legalization stage but the green card process."
In addition to Schumer and Rubio, the other senators offering the proposal were Republicans Jeff Flake and John McCain, both of Arizona, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, as well as Democrats Michael Bennet of Colorado, Richard Durbin of Illinois and Robert Menendez of New Jersey.
For several years, the ERLC's Land has called for comprehensive reform that includes a pathway to citizenship that would consist of such requirements as paying fines, undergoing a criminal background check, learning English, pledging allegiance to the American government, accepting a probationary period and going to the back of the line behind those seeking to enter the country legally.
Messengers to the 2011 Southern Baptist Convention in Phoenix, Ariz., approved a resolution on immigration reform that called for the advancement of the gospel of Jesus while pursuing justice and compassion. The measure urged the government to make a priority of border security and holding businesses accountable in their hiring. It also requested public officials establish after securing the borders "a just and compassionate path to legal status, with appropriate restitutionary measures, for those undocumented immigrants already living in our country." It specified the resolution was not to be interpreted as supporting amnesty.
Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press. Diana Chandler is Baptist Press' staff writer. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress ) and in your email ( baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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