Senate group wraps up work on immigration bill

WASHINGTON – Democratic and Republican negotiators have reached agreement on all the major elements of sweeping legislation to remake the nation’s immigration laws and expect to unveil the bill next week, lawmakers said Thursday.

After months of arduous closed-door negotiations, the “Gang of Eight” senators, equally divided between the two parties, had no issues left to resolve in person, and no more negotiating sessions were planned. Remaining details were left to aides, who were at work completing drafts of the bill.

“All issues that rise to the member level have been dealt with,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement. “All that is left is the drafting.”

Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois said the bill probably would be introduced on Tuesday.

The landmark legislation would overhaul legal immigration programs, require all employers to verify the legal status of their workers, greatly boost border security and put the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally on a path to citizenship. A top second-term priority for President Barack Obama, it would enact the biggest changes to U.S. immigration law in more than a quarter century.

Deals gelled over the past day on a new farm-worker program and visas for high-tech workers, eliminating the final substantive disputes on the legislation.

Next will come the uncertain public phase as voters and other lawmakers get a look at the measure. Already, some on the right have made it clear their opposition will be fierce.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., complained that the bill will ensure that millions get amnesty but border enforcement never happens.

“This is also why it is so troubling that (Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.) has rejected the GOP request for multiple hearings and that members of the Gang of Eight have publicly announced their intention to oppose any amendments,” Sessions said in a statement Thursday. “To proceed along these lines is tantamount to an admission that the bill is not workable and will not withstand public scrutiny.”

Pro-immigrant activists also were gearing up for a fight even as they expressed optimism that this time, Congress will finally succeed in passing an immigration overhaul bill. Many of those pushing for the legislation were involved in the last major immigration fight, in 2007, when a bill came close on the Senate floor but ultimately failed.

“I think it’s a pretty remarkable breakthrough that eight ideologically diverse senators are working so well together on such a challenging issue,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a group advocating for an overhaul of U.S. immigration policy. “And I think the fact that they’ve come up with a bill they can all support and defend suggests that it’s the heart of a bill that will finally pass into law.”

Once the legislation is released, it will be considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has scheduled a hearing for next Wednesday and will likely begin to amend and vote on the bill the week of May 6. From there, the bill would move to the Senate floor.

Both in committee and on the floor, the bill could change in unpredictable ways as senators try to amend it from the left and the right. The Gang of Eight — Schumer, Durbin, and Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo. — have discussed banding together to defeat amendments that could significantly alter the legislation.

Even more uncertain, though, is the conservative-led House, where a bipartisan group is also crafting an immigration bill, though timing of its release is uncertain. Many conservatives in the House remain opposed to citizenship for immigrants who have been living in the U.S. illegally.

Significant details of the Senate legislation have already become public, through comments from senators or aides, leaks or statements by outside groups.

The bill is expected to provide a 13-year path to citizenship for people living here illegally, but only after a new southern border security plan is in place, employers have adopted mandatory electronic verification of their workers’ legal status and a new electronic entry-exit system is operating at airports and seaports for tracking holders of temporary visas.

It would call for surveillance of 100 percent of the U.S. border with Mexico and apprehension of 90 percent of people trying to cross in certain high-risk areas.

Six months from enactment, people living in the U.S. illegally could apply for a provisional legal status, as long as the Department of Homeland Security has developed new plans for border security.

To get the provisional legal status, immigrants would have to pay fees, fines and taxes, undergo a criminal background check and meet some requirements for showing they’ve been physically present in the country so that recent arrivals would not qualify, Cesar Conda, Rubio’s chief of staff, said over Twitter on Thursday. He didn’t provide details.

A new visa program for low-skilled workers would ultimately allow up to 200,000 workers per year into the country for jobs as janitors, construction workers, nursing home attendants and other occupations.

Farm workers already here illegally would get a faster path to citizenship than other immigrants, and another new visa program would allow tens of thousands of new workers into the country to labor in the nation’s farms, fields and dairies.

A visa program for high-tech workers now capped at 65,000 per year would nearly double, and foreigners getting advanced degrees in math, technology, science and engineering from U.S. institutions would more easily qualify for permanent residence.

A largely voluntary system called E-Verify that employers can use to check their workers’ legal status would be expanded and made mandatory for all employers.

Many details, however, are not yet known. In particular, activists are eager to learn the particulars on how much people would have to pay in fees and fines to ultimately get citizenship. They also want to know about possible other requirements, such as a level of English proficiency.

Menendez promised Thursday that the path to citizenship will be attainable for the millions who want it. “It’s going to be very doable. I would not sign onto it” if it weren’t, he said.

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Follow Erica Werner on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ericawerner

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