Critics call immigration plan 'amnesty'

Thursday , March 06, 2014 - 11:49 AM

Jonathan D. Salant, Kathleen Hunter

WASHINGTON — A Senate plan to rewrite U.S. immigration law has stoked a years-old debate over allowing undocumented residents a chance to become citizens, a measure viewed by opponents as rewarding lawbreakers with “amnesty” and undercutting American workers.

Though Republican opposition to creating a citizenship path for the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants has waned since the November election, the issue divides the party. Some lawmakers and interest groups immediately criticized the bipartisan Senate plan released yesterday, centering on their opposition to amnesty for those in the country illegally.

“There will be 11 million, maybe more, given immediate amnesty” and placed “on a guaranteed path to citizenship,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., the chief opponent of the Senate proposal. “The amount of immigration is going to be far more than most Americans think.”

The Senate proposal from a group of four Democrats and four Republicans would allow undocumented immigrants who pay at least $2,000 in fines and meet other criteria to apply for citizenship after more than a decade in the U.S., though only if specific border security benchmarks are met. The four Republican members insisted that border security must be improved before any undocumented could become citizens.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, one of the Republicans in the group, on Tuesday told reporters that tightened border security is “vital” and would help attract Republican support.

Another Republican member, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, is among those in his party trying to pitch a citizenship path to reticent Republicans. As part of that effort, Rubio has been seeking to differentiate his group’s plan from a 1986 law that made 3 million undocumented workers eligible for legal status.

The proposal will address the “11 million undocumented people living under de facto amnesty” right now, Rubio said today in a statement after the bill’s text was made publicly available early this morning.

He added that the plan would deal with the undocumented population “in a tough but humane way that is fair to those trying to come here the right way and linked to achieving several security triggers.”

Rubio’s stance on the immigration issue embodies an attempt by party leaders since November to reconnect with Hispanic voters; 71 percent voted for President Barack Obama’s re- election. Almost two-thirds of Americans, 64 percent, support a citizenship path for the undocumented, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted April 5-8.

Still, the party remains split over the issue.

Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the chamber’s second-ranking Republican, said he was skeptical of the citizenship path proposal because it hinged on “promises that may or may not be possible to keep” of improved U.S. border security.

“We need to be realistic in terms of what this present Congress could bind future Congresses to in terms of goals five years and 10 years down the road,” Cornyn said Tuesday in an interview.

Sessions predicted that the citizenship path wasn’t “going to become law as written,” adding that he hadn’t decided whether to try to alter the bill or oppose it.

The comments signify that mustering the 60 votes needed to pass the plan in the Senate will be difficult.

An immigration-law rewrite faces longer odds in the Republican-run House, where a separate bipartisan group is drafting a proposal which could be released later this month.

Since the last major immigration revision was approved in 1986, lawmakers have unsuccessfully tried several times to revamp U.S. immigration policy, most recently in 2007.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, Tuesday described the Senate plan as an “amnesty proposal” that he said “will encourage even more illegal immigration.”

Interest groups opposed to a citizenship path are marshaling their resources to combat the Senate proposal, concentrating on getting their members and allies to call Capitol Hill and make sure lawmakers know where they stand.

“Our goal is to make the American public aware that there’s nothing in it for them, said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports limits on immigration. He added that the proposal includes ‘‘all sorts of goodies for people who broke our laws and people who want to hire cheap labor.’’

FAIR is hosting 46 talk-radio hosts in a Washington hotel today and tomorrow who will broadcast live in opposition to the immigration bill as the group’s activists lobby lawmakers. Some hosts will be asking listeners to call home-state lawmakers, in a reprise of efforts that helped sink the 2007 immigration legislation when congressional Republicans split with President George W. Bush.

FAIR also plans to use social media and communications with its 250,000 members to alert them to the immigration bill and urge them to contact their lawmakers.

On the website of Arlington, Va.-based NumbersUSA, which also opposes the immigration bill, visitors can click on the home page to send a fax to their member of Congress, their senators and Obama. The group maintains that immigration should be restricted at a time of high unemployment.

‘‘We will be doing everything we can to help the 20 million unemployed Americans have a voice and be heard in this debate,’’ said Roy Beck, NumbersUSA’s president.

The group plans to contact its 1.8 million members and have them call their lawmakers, and call their friends and have them contact their representatives as well. NumbersUSA also plans to target ads in areas represented by undecided senators.

Tea party groups may also join in the fight, Beck said. ‘‘Once the costs of this are looked at, I don’t think you’re going to see any tea parties supporting it,” he said. “Their main thing is less government spending, smaller government.”

Some already are weighing in. The Tea Party Patriots asked supporters Tuesday to go to their senators’ offices and wave a flag, a sign or both, and then deliver a letter. They are objecting to the process, saying lawmakers are negotiating “completely” behind closed doors and will hold just one hearing with no amendments. “We aren’t asking for a lot,” the note said. “Just to be represented rather than ruled over.”

McCain and New York Sen. Charles Schumer, a Democratic member of the group proposing the immigration plan, said Tuesday that there will be full and open hearings with ample opportunity to debate and amend the bill.

Meanwhile, some immigrant advocacy groups say the Senate plan is too restrictive.

The PICO National Network, a group of religious organizations that supports a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, says the measure places “unnecessary obstacles and delays in the path to citizenship and could unfairly exclude some of the 11 million aspiring Americans,” as Bishop Ricardo McClin, pastor of the Church of God Restoration in Kissimmee, Fla., wrote in a statement.

Under the senators’ plan, immigrants who entered the country illegally before Dec. 31, 2011 can apply for provisional status after passing a criminal background check and paying back taxes and a fine. After 10 years and more fines, those people could apply for a green card, signifying permanent resident status, if they learn English and maintain regular employment in the U.S., according to a 17-page summary of the proposal.

“That’s not amnesty in anyone’s book,” Schumer said Tuesday after he and McCain briefed Obama at the White House.

In a statement released by the White House after the meeting with the two senators, Obama praised the measure as a package of “commonsense steps that the majority of Americans support.”

The plan for securing the border must, within five years, result in an apprehension rate of at least 90 percent in “high- risk” sectors where more than 30,000 people are apprehended a year. If that rate isn’t met in those sectors within five years, the proposal would establish a commission of border-state officials and border-security experts to recommend ways to achieve the 90 percent goal.

“We’re not going to get every vote, but we hope to get a significant number of Republicans and Democrats to send a message to the House that there is very strong support,” McCain said.

_ With assistance from Roxana Tiron and Roger Runningen in Washington.

Sign up for e-mail news updates.