Senate negotiators are moving behind-the-scenes to build support for the high-profile immigration bill they plan to unveil as soon as this week. At a lunchtime briefing, Democratic senators in the Gang of Eight sought to allay concerns raised by members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus about the border enforcement measures that would need to be in place before the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants can obtain green cards.
Sens. Chuck Schumer (N.Y.), Bob Menendez (N.J.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Michael Bennet (Colo.) disputed a report in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal that the immigrants would have to wait until law enforcement officials are stopping 90 percent of people crossing the Southern border.
According to Democratic sources briefed on the legislation, the Department of Homeland Security would need to implement a plan that achieves the 90 percent apprehension rate, but the rate itself is not a trigger and a barrier to the pathway for citizenship.
A Republican source familiar with the bill said DHS would be prohibited from granting green cards until it meets certain milestones, including: enhanced border security; a fully-implemented system for employers to verify a worker’s immigration status; and an exit-entry system to track visa holders. If these milestones are not met at the end of the 10-year waiting period, green cards cannot be issued, the source said, but added that the milestones would ensure that the 90 percent rate is achieved.
The Democratic Senate negotiators didn’t provide a detailed description to the Hispanic Caucus, instead asking that the members trust them. “We told them when we first met with them you have the last word, and we started this meeting with them saying exactly the same thing,” Durbin told reporters. “We need to have your approval.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) had planned to brief the 45-member Senate Republican Conference on Wednesday at a lunch hosted by the conservative Steering Committee, but it was postponed to allow time for the group to discuss gun legislation.
The two constituencies will be critical for the immigration bill’s success. If the GOP negotiators — Rubio, Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina — can attract enough support from conservative GOP senators, it could neutralize opponents on the right who are trying to replicate their successful efforts that helped kill the 2007 immigration bill.
And if Schumer and Menendez can court Democratic Hispanic House members, it could help alleviate fears in the Latino community that the pathway to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants could be too cumbersome under the emerging plan. The plan would allow undocumented immigrants to apply for green cards after 10 years and citizenship after 13 years, but it would call for a series of new border enforcement measures to take place before giving the immigrants permanent legal status.
These efforts emerged as the Gang of Eight senators are finalizing plans to roll out the comprehensive bill. They may unveil the plan as soon as Thursday or Friday, in advance of a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Wednesday. The committee is likely to vote next month, and floor action this summer.
The bill would have an enormous impact on businesses and documented and undocumented workers across the country, while attempting to attract low-wage and highly-skilled foreign workers and securing the southern border with Mexico. Negotiators are close to hammering out a deal that would woo foreign seasonal workers into the country — while providing them a pathway to citizenship faster than the rest of the 11 million illegal immigrants. And Rubio, along with Durbin, are closing in on a deal that would raise the cap for the number of H-1B visas allowed for highly-skilled workers.
“It might be done even sooner,” Durbin said when asked if a bill would be released next week.
Meanwhile, negotiations between agribusiness and farm-workers has reached the final stages with a deal expected as soon as later today.
The United Farm Workers has agreed to wages and a cap for the number of visas for these workers. The group met Tuesday with Sens. Bennet and Sens. Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) and talked to Rubio (Fla.) on the phone. The UFW has more than a hundred workers on Capitol Hill Wednesday, trying to make the case to negotiators that they should take the deal that has been brokered.
Feinstein said Tuesday that a “tentative” deal had been reached, but farm groups said there was still no final agreement.
After months of negotiations, which broke down late last week, the farm workers put forward a proposal for a new visa program to which the agriculture industry hasn’t signed on. In addition to the blue cards for the existing agricultural workforce, their proposal would put a cap on a new agriculture visa program at 200,000 annually through 2020. After 2020, the Agriculture secretary would determine the number of agriculture visas going forward.
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