Here Comes the "Path to Citizenship"

Posted: Apr 16, 2013 3:31 PM

The Gang of Eight comprehensive immigration reform plan coming out of the U.S. Senate is beginning to take shape. Due to yesterday's events in Boston, it won't be formally announced in a press conference, but members from the Gang will discuss the immigration reform package with President Obama at the White House today.

The headlines from the legislation would include a "path to citizenship" for more than 11 million illegal immigrants and increased funding for border security. The complete "path to citizenship" would take thirteen years, but a mere six months after the bill would be enacted, the vast majority of illegal immigrants could apply for legal status. (Hat tip: Justin Green.)

Six months after the bill becomes law, most of the 11 million people in the country without authorization — those who have been in the country before Dec. 31, 2011, and have no serious criminal record — would be eligible to apply for a new probationary legal status. That would allow them to live and work in the U.S. without fear of deportation. They would be required to pay a $500 initial penalty as well as an application fee and back taxes. The probationary status would be good for six years and could then be renewed after payment of another $500 penalty.

At the end of 10 years, if the border security targets have been hit, those on probationary status would be able to pay another $1,000 to apply for a green card, which provides permanent legal residency. Three years later, they could apply for citizenship. Those granted probationary status would not be eligible for government benefits during the decadelong wait.

Once those who have become legal residents under this "probationary legal" definition, they'd have a long wait. As the Arizona Republic reports:

Immigrants granted provisional status would have to wait 10 years before they could apply for permanent residency through a new merit- based system. To apply for permanent residency, they would have to have remained in the U.S., paid all their taxes, worked regularly in the U.S. and demonstrated knowledge of U.S. civics and English. The backlogs of immigrants currently waiting for family and employment green cards would have to be gone before provisional immigrants could apply for permanent residency. Provisional immigrants would also have to pay another $1,000 penalty.

This legislation will also attempt to take on border security. There's very little information available on the total number of border crossings, but past efforts at border enforcement have not particularly borne fruit. Spending on border enforcement has little to no correlation with number of border apprehensions. Apprehensions at the border have radically plummeted in the Obama era, despite increased spending, at the same time that total deportations have risen to all- time highs.

In theory, none of the elements of the path to citizenship for the legislation would go into effect until the additional border enforcement measures are put into place.

It would require the Homeland Security Department to create and launch plans for border security and fencing before illegal immigrants can enter a provisional status. This could happen as early as six months after enactment of the bill.

It's unclear whether the border security "triggers" will be enough to satisfy skeptical lawmakers. The bill outline establishes numeric goals for border apprehensions, but it's unclear how closely meeting -- or missing -- those goals are tied to the pathway to legal status.

A bombshell report from the Government Accountability Office earlier this year indicated that the Obama Administration needed to completely overhaul their entire border enforcement enterprise. While this bill would increase border security spending fairly substantially, the GAO concludes that there's even more work to be done:

The Government Accountability Office report found that an estimated 208,813 illegal immigrants escaped capture along the nearly 2,000-mile border. Slightly more than half of them turned back to Mexico, and the others proceeded deeper into the U.S., the report said.

The report also said that the Obama administration has gone more than two years without having an effective yardstick for measuring border security, meaning there is no good way to evaluate the job the Border Patrol is doing.

Republican Jeff Sessions has already come out against the framework, specifically how the border enforcement "trigger" would work, saying "how the trigger works and the way it would be effected in some ways appears weaker than the one in 2007." In 2007, a comprehensive immigration reform bill sponsored by Ted Kennedy and John McCain, and backed in spirit by George W. Bush, was defeated due to how conservatives believed the legislation was too heavy on illegal immigration forgiveness and not hard enough on border enforcement.

Legislative text remains to be seen. Conservative reaction remains to be seen. But the Gang of 8, which includes conservative stalwarts like Marco Rubio and Jeff Flake, will continue to press on with their cause, and will push this as a first step towards a truly comprehensive immigration reform bill.

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