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Could Senate plan for illegal immigrants work?

It calls for categorizing immigrants by length of US residency, but logistics would be complex.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 8, 2006


The Senate's reasoning is that illegal immigrants who have been in the US less than two years haven't yet developed deep roots here - certainly not deep enough to be on the path to American citizenship.

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So they're the ones who must pack up and leave, under the recently approved Senate version of immigration reform. All 2 million of them.

But the particulars of how that exodus would happen - including who would be responsible for enforcing it - remain hazy. Moreover, the bill requires a second category of immigrants - almost 3 million people who've been in the US two to five years - to return to a border to apply for a work visa, a process that critics say threatens to bog down an already overtaxed system.

Of course, it's uncertain if the Senate's version of reform will be the legislation that prevails, especially with House leaders firmly opposed to a path to citizenship for any of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.

Either way, the challenge of enforcing a mass deportation of some 2 million people, and of sorting the remaining 10 million-plus into two distinct categories, is at the very least daunting and, at most, unfeasible, say those tracking Congress's efforts.

"Provisions that unnecessarily complicate what's already going to be a difficult and overwhelming process, to the extent that they can't be implemented, will undermine the success of the entire bill," says Deborah Meyers, a senior policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute, who supports the sort of comprehensive approach the Senate bill has tried to take. "To be effective, certain changes need to be made [in the reform legislation], and they need to keep in mind the workability - not just what can get passed politically, but what can work when you implement it."

Under the Senate plan, immigrants who have been in the US longer than five years could register and stay and eventually apply for permanent legal status, so long as they fulfill certain requirements, including paying owed taxes and fines and learning English and US civics. Those in the middle category would be allowed to reenter the country on a work visa, and could eventually work toward a green card.

House leaders, however, are reportedly hardening their opposition to the Senate bill, raising the possibility of an impasse.

For now, Ms. Meyers and others question how burdensome the proposal might be on immigration agents, who would need to check and verify proofs of residency, and on border agents, who would have to process in a short time the nearly 3 million immigrants who fall into the two- to five-year category. The potential for fraud is a worry, and many doubt that immigrants who've been here fewer than two years would leave voluntarily.

But given a bill that survived the Senate largely intact against long odds, many supporters say such criticisms are quibbles about what is, in the end, the comprehensive approach they were seeking. And, they say, the system could work better than some anticipate.

"It's going to take a greater level of incentive to get people to come out of the shadows who have been here a long time, and less amount of incentive for people who have been here less time," says a Senate aide familiar with the bill, who required anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly about it. "It makes sense to treat people differently."

The aide dismisses the notion that returning to the border is merely a symbolic gesture. That's because the two- to five-year group would ultimately be considered temporary workers - even if they can eventually get on the path to green cards.

The Senate bill was passed with the expectation that the fees paid by immigrants who have been here more than two years would cover the costs of registering and and processing them. And it tries to head off the possibility of fraud by increasing penalties - including criminal prosecution, which would bar those guilty of using fraudulent documents from ever being considered for legal residency.