After months of negotiations, the Gang of Eight senators were poised to file their immigration bill late Tuesday evening, striking a deal to immediately legalize most illegal immigrants and ease the path for future legal immigrants in exchange for promises of much stiffer border security, backed up by verifiable yardsticks.
President Obama met with two of the negotiators Tuesday afternoon and blessed the broad outlines of the agreement, calling it “largely consistent” with what he had proposed.
The bill would grant immediate legal status and work permits to most illegal immigrants, but would withhold a full path to citizenship until the border security benchmarks are met something that backers say will convince Americans that this is not an amnesty.
Immigrant rights advocates said the legalization is still too punitive, but were generally happy with the deal, saying it was the beginning of a good compromise. Conservatives, however, were not happy.
Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who wrote a 1996 law cracking down on immigration, said the latest bill would give illegal immigrants a special pathway to citizenship, ahead of millions of people waiting legally at home.
“Illegal immigrants get legal status immediately. The law-abiding well, they just have to continue waiting,” Mr. Smith said.
COVERAGE: Immigration Reform
The bill is just the first step in what is expected to be a long and difficult fight. The Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled two hearings to explore details of the bill and then the legislation will face amendments in committee before heading to the full Senate later this spring.
If the legislation clears the Senate, it will need to be matched by the House, where a separate group of negotiators is working on a bill.
The last immigration bill collapsed in 2007 amid bitter disagreements over border security and future guest workers, issues that will be tested in this agreement.
Mr. Obama, who voted for the 2007 bill as a senator, praised this latest deal.
“These are all common-sense steps that the majority of Americans support,” the president said after being briefed by Sens. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat. “I stand willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that comprehensive immigration reform becomes a reality as soon as possible.”
In blessing the deal, though, Mr. Obama embraced provisions to which he objected just weeks ago including a long pathway to citizenship that is contingent on the Homeland Security Department getting a handle on the borders.
Democrats negotiating the deal said that was the price Republicans demanded for striking a deal and said it was worth it.
Full text of the Senate deal was being finalized Tuesday evening, but aides said they expected to file it overnight and circulated an extensive outline of provisions.
Under the agreement, only illegal immigrants who can prove they were in the U.S. by the end of 2011 would be eligible for legalization. Those convicted of a felony or three or more misdemeanors, or who voted illegally in the U.S., would be ineligible.
Those who do qualify would get immediate “registered provisional immigrant” status and a work permit.
The bill would allow those being deported to apply, and would even allow illegal immigrants who already have been deported to apply to come back under the same terms as current illegal immigrants if they have close family ties to a citizen, legal permanent resident or a Dream Act-eligible illegal immigrant.
After 10 years, the formerly illegal immigrants would be allowed to become legal permanent residents, which is the key step on the pathway to citizenship.
All sides acknowledged that the bill involved compromises: Democrats said they didn’t want the path to citizenship to be tied to more border security, while Republicans fought for stricter limits on which illegal immigrants would gain legal status.
The provisions on future legal immigration also are certain to spark a bruising floor fight. The bill creates a complex guest-worker program for low-skilled workers, with multiple layers of protection for American workers, including strict low limits on the number of people granted entry, and a requirement that the foreign workers be paid American-level wages so they don’t undercut native workers.
Business advocates called the program “puny” and said it will shortchange the construction industry in particular.
The bill also replaces E-Verify, the voluntary electronic system that businesses can use to check potential employees’ work status, with a mandatory Employment Verification System. The new system would try to include photos of all Americans as a means of weeding out fraud.
Immigrant rights groups said the decadelong wait to be put on a path to citizenship is too long, and they objected to holding that path hostage to the Homeland Security Department’s ability to get the borders secure. But they said introducing the agreement is a good start.
“That’s the nature of compromise: yielding on something each of us cares about to move forward on what all of us care about,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum.