WASHINGTON – A bipartisan group of eight senators unveiled its 800-page immigration reform bill Thursday, calling it a “fair, comprehensive and practical solution” to a difficult problem.
The bill calls for massive new spending on border security, new safeguards against hiring illegal immigrants, an expanded visa program and, finally, a difficult “but achievable” path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people here illegally now.
“We are all united in our determination that, at the end of the day, it remains a fair, comprehensive and practical solution to a difficult problem,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of the eight senators behind the bill introduced Thursday.
The bill makes a pathway to citizenship dependent on border security, a condition that senators said is vital to reform passing Congress and to solving the illegal immigration problem.
“Our approach is balanced. The border security triggers are strong, but achievable,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. “The path to citizenship is tough, but it is accessible.”
Schumer said the senators in the so-called “Gang of 8″ – four Republicans and four Democrats – recognized during their 24 meetings on the bill over the past several months that none of them would get everything they wanted.
And they noted that this is just the start of debate on the issue, which will be heavily debated and likely amended.
McCain said that while he welcomes improvements to the bill, he will oppose amendments that could keep a comprehensive reform measure from passing. That would do nothing to stem the country’s immigration struggles, he said.
“The status quo threatens our security, damages our economy, disregards the rule of law and neglects our humanitarian responsibilities,” McCain said.
The sponsors also said that a piecemeal approach to immigration reform, as some organizations and lawmakers have suggested, would not be an adequate fix.
“If we want the strong border security provisions that we have in this bill in particular, then you can only achieve that by pairing that with something that others feel very strongly about,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., one of the eight sponsors.
One stated goal of the bill is to prevent a “third wave” of immigrants crossing the border illegally.
The first wave was supposed to have been dealt with by a 1986 immigration reform law that granted amnesty to 3 million people then in the country illegally, as it promised to secure the border. The second wave came after that bill was passed, leading to current estimates of 11 million people here illegally.
The senators said not addressing the millions from that second wave who are “living in the shadows” is bad for the country going forward and will not help solve the problem.
The pathway to citizenship in the bill was agreed upon, in part, because there is no realistic way to make the people who are here return to the countries they came from, McCain said.
The senators conceded that the bill would be expensive, but said the costs will be covered by the various fees and fines that immigrants will have to pay as they move down the path to citizenship.
The bill calls for $3 billion for extra customs and border patrol officers, for manned and unmanned aircraft, and other surveillance and detection systems on the southern border. It would also put $1.5 billion toward the southern border fence, including double-layer fencing, infrastructure and technology.
People in the United States illegally who are looking to gain citizenship would first have to apply for registered provisional status. That would be the first step toward getting a green card 10 years later and, later still, citizenship.
Provisional status applicants would face assessed taxes, a $500 penalty and an application fee. If they had to reapply to renew their provisional status, another $500 fee would be assessed.
There are other fees throughout the bill, including in the expanded visa program and employer accountability.