The immigration reform bill that senators are writing in secret would move U.S. policy to a points-based system that would reward immigrants who are taking care of disabled parents at the same level as those who have earned master's degrees in high-tech fields, according to a draft of the legislation reviewed by The Washington Times.
The eight senators writing the bill plan to announce provisions this week, ahead of a major hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, but some details already have been leaked. Among them is the points system to select immigrants.
Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, said his plan would make illegal immigrants wait years to gain citizenship. Republican leaders are counting on Mr. Rubio to sell the plan to skeptical conservatives.
"This is not amnesty. Amnesty is the forgiveness of something," Mr. Rubio said on "Fox News Sunday." "We're going to create an alternative that says, 'OK, you want to stay here, you'll have to wait more than 10 years, you'll have to pay this fine, you'll have to pay your registration fee, you'll have to be gainfully employed, you won't qualify for any federal benefits, and then after all of that you don't get to apply for anything until the enforcement mechanisms are in place.'"
Mr. Rubio made the rounds of all of the major Sunday political talk shows to pitch the legislation. His appearances marked what one immigration rights advocate called "opening day" for what is expected to be a bruising fight on Capitol Hill.
"The preseason is over. Opening day is upon us," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice. "Establishing a new road map to citizenship for undocumented immigrants is the core of the reform bill to be unveiled this week. If bipartisanship and common sense continue to hold, we will achieve a major breakthrough this year."
Mr. Rubio is negotiating with seven other lawmakers: Republican Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Jeff Flake, and Democratic Sens. Richard J. Durbin, Charles E. Schumer, Robert Menendez and Michael Bennet.
The crux of their deal is that illegal immigrants would be granted immediate legal status, but most of them would have to wait years before gaining permanent legal residency, a key step on the pathway to citizenship.
The government would have to take steps to boost border security and interior enforcement.
Critics question whether the government would follow through on the enforcement measures, and some Republicans have said they expect a high cost to taxpayers — particularly if current illegal immigrants gain access to entitlement programs.
Mr. Rubio and other sponsors say they don't intend for newly legalized immigrants to have access to public benefits, but three Republicans charge that the government already does a poor job of weeding out people using those services.
"Moreover, even if the bill does contain strong, loophole-free language to this effect, it will only succeed in delaying — not reducing — the cost to taxpayers," Sens. Jeff Sessions, Chuck Grassley and Pat Roberts said in a letter to the eight senators writing the bill.
"Once the present illegal population receives green cards, they will be eligible under current law for a wide array of federal welfare programs including food stamps, Supplemental Security Income, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and Medicaid," the three senators wrote. "By their very nature, these programs necessarily represent a net fiscal cost to taxpayers."
But Mr. Rubio said the immigrants' contributions to the American economy must be weighed in order to get a true sense of costs and benefits.
"You will find that when we reform our legal immigration system, we get these people that are already here now paying their taxes and not taking anything out of the system, this will be a net positive for the country economically now and in the future," he said.
Some Republicans have a problem with giving illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship, but Mr. Rubio and his allies say the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. right now cannot be sent home en masse and essentially are living in the country under an amnesty because their chances of deportation are slim.
According to the draft of the bill reviewed by The Times, which was dated earlier this month, the agreement could boost legal immigration dramatically.
Polling suggests that would be controversial. Most Americans tell pollsters that they want the flow of immigration to remain the same or be curbed, while less than 20 percent say it should be increased.
The draft legislation would create a pathway to citizenship for many of those who remain in the country for at least a decade under special programs such as Temporary Protected Status. Under current law, those programs are not supposed to be pathways to permanent residency.
Under the system described in the draft, future immigrants would be awarded for educational attainment, work experience in the U.S., language skills and ties to those already in the country. It is similar to systems used by other major economies, including Australia, the United Kingdom and Canada.
Under the proposed U.S. system, those with doctoral degrees would earn 50 points toward immigration, while those who have attained only high school education would earn 15 points. Owning a home would be worth 40 points, while being proficient in English would be worth 20 points. Having critical foreign language skills, as determined by the State Department, would be worth 10 points.
Those with their own health insurance would be awarded 10 points and would earn an extra 10 points for every family member for whom they also had coverage.
The draft gives the Homeland Security Department the ability to create categories of points and to adjust the existing point system — a striking grant of power to an agency that is under fire from Congress for its interpretations of immigration law.
The 2007 immigration bill that was defeated in the Senate also included a points system. That system drew criticism from some on the left, who said it put too much value on work and education and not enough value on family ties.
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