Immigrants in the U.S. illegally would not gain green cards under a bipartisan Senate bill until law-enforcement officials are monitoring the entire southern border a nd stopping 90% of people crossing illegally in certain areas, according to people familiar with the plan. Republican Sen. Rand Paul called for an overhaul of immigration laws that would allow millions of undocumented immigrants to remain permanently in the U.S. Aaron Zitner reports. Photo: Getty Images.
The border-security proposal, part of a broader immigration bill being written by eight senators, sets several goals that would have to be met before any of the estimated 11 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally could apply for permanent legal residency, also known as a green card, according to the people familiar with the Senate talks. Meeting all the goals is expected to take 10 years.
In a major change for businesses, all employers would be required after a five-year phase-in period to use the government’s E-Verify system, which screens for illegal workers. E-Verify now is largely voluntary, though some states require it. Some 409,000 employers had enrolled in the program as of last year, the federal government says, a tiny fraction of the estimated six million private U.S. employers, many of which have only a handful of employees.
Along the U.S.-Mexican border, 100% of the border would have to be under surveillance, and law enforcement would have to catch 90% of those who cross the border illegally at “high risk” sections—a term that people following the Senate talks did not define. In 2010, the Department of Homeland Security reported that only 44% of the border was under operational control, meaning officials had the ability to detect and block illegal activity there.
In addition, the government would have to create an electronic system to monitor everyone who exits from the U.S. through airports or seaports, in an attempt to identify people overstaying their visas. People who overstay visas account for a large share of illegal immigrants, as much as 40% by some estimates.
Once all of those measures are met, immigrants could begin qualifying for green cards. In the meantime, the legislation would grant probationary status to illegal immigrants who passed a criminal-background check, paid a fine and met other conditions. The legislation, which would also set special rules for agricultural workers, is not fully drafted and has not yet been released publicly.
Setting tougher border-security measures as a prerequisite to offering legal status to illegal immigrants could ease the way for many lawmakers, particularly Republicans, to support the immigration-law overhaul. Many Republicans have said the border must be secure before they would consider any change in the status of illegal immigrants.
Meanwhile, advocates for immigrants and some Democrats worry that stringent border-security requirements would create an indefinite delay for illegal immigrants seeking legal status. Frank Sharry, executive director of the group America’s Voice, said the Senate plan seemed poised to include the “toughest border-security requirements ever.”
“It raises the question of whether it’s actually achievable, and whether it will end up thwarting the path to citizenship for 11 million people,” he said. “I think there will be a lot of heartburn when the bill is released.”
The measures laid out in the Senate plan are similar to a border-security bill unveiled Tuesday by Sen. John Cornyn and House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, both Texas Republicans.
How to determine whether the border is secure is a contentious issue in the debate over overhauling the nation’s immigration laws. President Barack Obama and other Democrats have argued that border security has already improved, but the Senate plan would push the Department of Homeland Security to go further.
Republicans say they want to prevent another wave of immigrants from entering the U.S. illegally. Many in the GOP cite a 1986 immigration law legalizing millions without, they say, adequately improving border security.
Mr. Cornyn, who has been skeptical of immigration-overhaul efforts, said he would be pleased if the eight senators writing the new legislation adopted security measures similar to ones he put forward. “I would be favorably impressed if they embraced this,” Mr. Cornyn said. But his bill could also offer an alternative to GOP lawmakers who want to sign on to a measure boosting border security without offering legal status to illegal immigrants.
How tough the security measures prove to be will depend on the details of the legislation. Lawmakers will have to define, for instance, “high-risk” areas subject to the 90% apprehension requirement. The border-security targets will also depend on how lawmakers define requirements for surveillance, also known as border “awareness.” The standards could change over time or prove to be subjective. The Department of Homeland Security would be charged with collecting the data.
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