Next in immigration debate: Sorting through the specifics

McClatchy NewspapersApril 18, 2013 

— Now that the behemoth immigration bill pitched by the so-called Gang of Eight has been filed, activists – and their lawyers – on both sides of the issue have been poring over the 844-page document and uncovering concerns they want addressed.

Immigrant advocates worry about a thorny path to citizenship, difficult triggers that might block thousands of people from legalization, the elimination of diversity visas and the lack of same-sex benefits. Those on the other side worry about promises to secure the border that might not be kept, triggers that may not be enforced and increased competition for jobs. Politics aside, the question remains whether it’s possible to reconcile the many policy disagreements in this bill.

Although details had been released earlier this week, the Gang of Eight senators announced their proposal publicly Thursday afternoon with dozens of leaders from the business, labor, faith and advocacy communities behind them in support.

The bill provides at least a 13-year path to citizenship for most of the 11 million people who are in the U.S. illegally, and it would give thousands of deported individuals a chance to return. It would appropriate billions of dollars to hire thousands more Border Patrol agents, would deploy drones over highly trafficked sections and would give money to local law-enforcement agencies on the border.

It also would impose new restrictions on new family visas and eventually would end visa availability for siblings.

“The legislation is not perfect," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. “No one will like every provision in the bill. Neither should anyone oppose every position."

Republicans such as Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida took to conservative radio this week to court listeners and counter charges that the proposal amounted to amnesty for lawbreakers. Senate Democrats encouraged immigrant advocates to look at the “totality” of the proposal.

A leading proponent for a comprehensive immigration overhaul walked out of a meeting with senators this week at the Capitol and called out:

“OK, folks, the battle begins,” said Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice. He said advocates had a lot of work ahead to push for changing what they didn’t like and to protect what they did, namely the path to citizenship for most of the 11 million here illegally.

As the advocates huddled in the corridors of the Capitol earlier this week, opponents ramped up their fight two blocks away at a hotel where more than 45 conservative radio hosts from more than two dozen states broadcast about the battle ahead and charged that the Gang of Eight senators were placing the needs of those here illegally ahead of suffering Americans.

The two-day talk radio event was sponsored by the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports greater immigration enforcement.

“I’m convinced this is going to be a real uphill battle this time,” WFTL-AM radio host Joyce Kaufman told listeners in West Palm Beach, Fla., on Thursday morning. “But I think we can win. We have to be the voice of the people. And that’s what we do.”

Arizona cattle rancher John Ladd and his wife, Jobeth, sat with radio host after radio host to tell their story of life on the border, where people erect ladders and cut through fences along their 14,000-acre property to slip into the country from Mexico. On Sunday, on his way back home after checking on his cattle, Ladd noticed a dust cloud being kicked up to the east near the border. He said he’d lifted his binoculars and seen nine people running from Border Patrol agents who were riding horses and four-wheel motorcycles.

“And they didn’t catch them,” Ladd said. “That’s every day. That’s what people don’t understand. They say, ‘It can’t be.’ Well, it is. And it’s been going like that for 20 years.”

Lawmakers who oppose the legislation said it didn’t help the United States’ situation.

“We have immigration laws for two reasons. One, to protect our national security. Two, to protect American jobs. The proposal of the Senate Gang of Eight violates both of those principles,” said Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa. “We’ll make our borders less secure, and by offering a pathway to citizenship we encourage millions of people to rush to the United States to benefit from this proposal.”

Promises by the Gang of Eight that enforcement will be tougher were described as hollow and likened to the popular comic character Charlie Brown, who was fooled repeatedly when his friend Lucy promised not to pull away the football as he tried to kick it. She always did.

Rubio, a member of the bipartisan Gang of Eight, did his best to counter such reservations by going on talk shows to counter claims that border security triggers were mere political bravado and lacked muscle.

“That’s false,” Rubio told reporters this week. He then listed several requirements, including the implementation of an entry-exit system that would address 40 percent of those who came legally but overstayed their visas, and an update to universal worker-verification programs that would stop the magnet of jobs, among others.

“These are not goals,” he said. “These are things that must happen before the green card process begins.”

Such talk of requirements that might impede legalization has Latino advocates such as Marielena Hincapie nervous. The executive director of the National Immigration Law Center said there was concern that the federal government wouldn’t be able to implement all these systems within 10 years, creating a large tier of second-class temporary residents who were in legal limbo.

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., assured advocates Wednesday that he wouldn’t have signed the bill if he thought the triggers would impede the path to legalization, attendees said.

But they’re still wary.

“We understand that there have to be these goals in there. That this is part of the negotiation,” Hincapie said. “But the legalization program cannot be contingent on those being secure. We have to see how the bill is written. Hopefully, it is more of a goal rather than a kind of piece that would impede legalization.” Anne-Kathrin Gerstlauer contributed to this report.

Email: fordonez@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @francoordonez

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