Immigration reform 101: How would Senate plan actually work?

Features of the bipartisan plan range from more drones along the Rio Grande to a path to citizenship for some 11 million people in the country illegally. But the fight is all about the details.

Gary Cameron/Reuters
From right to left, Sens. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, Charles Schumer (D) of New York, and John McCain (R) of Arizona listen to a question at a news conference on comprehensive immigration reform at the US Capitol in Washington Monday.

On Monday a bipartisan group of eight senators unveiled a proposed overhaul of the US immigration system. The plan includes both increased border enforcement and an eventual path to citizenship for many of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country. Yet some important details of the effort remain undefined. According to what we know now, how would the immigration overhaul work?

We’ll give you a stripped-down, “Immigration 101” version of the plan so you can follow debate on the issue in the days and weeks ahead.

First, the senatorial plan calls for devoting increased resources to what it calls “the basic governmental function of securing our borders." Specifically, it calls for increasing the use of drones and other electronic surveillance equipment, improving radio interoperability, and in general raising the number of agents at and between US border crossings.

“The purpose is to substantially lower the number of successful illegal border crossings while continuing to facilitate commerce," says the proposal.

Second, the plan calls for completion of a system capable of tracking whether people who enter the United States via temporary visas have left the country before their visas expire. Most surveys find that overstays range from 31 to 57 percent of those in the country illegally, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Third, it would establish a commission of Southwestern governors, attorneys general, and community leaders “to monitor the progress of securing our border and to make a recommendation regarding when the bill’s security measures outlined in the legislation are completed."

The actual importance of this commission is unclear, as we’ll see in a moment.

Fourth, this approach to the problem would require individuals who are currently here illegally to register with the government while the security measures are being put in place. Those who pass a background check designed to weed out actual criminals, and who pay a fine and settle all back taxes, would earn a probationary legal status. 

Again, this would occur simultaneously with all the more-drones-along-the-Rio-Grande stuff. There’s been some confusion about that.

Fifth, citizenship! After the enforcement measures have been completed, those immigrants on probationary legal status could stand in the back of the line to get a green card and eventual US citizenship. They would not earn these coveted items until everyone who has played by the rules and is already legally waiting has been taken care of.

“Our purpose is to ensure that no one who has violated America’s immigration laws will receive preferential treatment as they relate to those individuals who have complied with the law,” states the proposal.

(Hmm. Haven’t they already received preferential treatment via the probationary legal status thing? What’s the difference between that and a green card? Isn’t legal status, probationary or not, what most illegal immigrants really want? Those are questions the plan’s proponents have yet to address.)

Now, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and some other Republicans are saying that the border commission plays a key role here, and that no current illegal immigrant will be able to emerge from probationary status until the panel says the border is secure. That’s unacceptable to many Democrats, who worry that Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) and others will simply refuse to issue that certification, blocking progress for the foreseeable future.

But Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona on Tuesday morning said on CBS that the group gets to make a recommendation, nothing more.

“The final decision will be made by the secretary of Homeland Security,” said Senator McCain.

It’s possible that this could be a highly contentious issue within the whole immigration debate going forward.

“This question is viewed as critical by people on both sides of the debate. Yet Senators appear to want to keep the answer to this question vague. Which tells us something about the politics of this fight – and about just how difficult the prospects for reform remain,” writes Greg Sargent on his left-leaning Washington Post Plum Line blog.

Other possible flash points include the plan’s favored treatment of agricultural workers, who get to stand in line ahead of many others. (So would undocumented children brought here by their parents, mirroring what President Obama has already ordered via executive action.)

The plan also calls for an “effective” system that allows employers to verify their employees’ immigration status. Presumably this would be either an update or a replacement of the current E-Verify government effort.

Currently, use of E-Verify is not mandatory for most employers. Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois said Monday that the Senate immigration plan would “require employers to verify that all their employees are legal and make sure that there’s a means of verification that is quick and accurate."

Some opponents of the Senate effort question whether any such system will ever be fully implemented.

“E-Verify is the main enforcement bait the open-borders crowd holds out to attract naïve conservatives to back amnesty,” writes Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.

Finally, the Senate plan also calls for the issuance of automatic green cards to anyone who earns an advanced degree in science, engineering, math, or technology at a US university.

So there you have it. It’s a sweeping plan that for now is just general enough to attract widespread support. The real fights will occur over the details of this or any other immigration plan that gets serious consideration in Congress.

"We are only part of the way done. There are loads of pitfalls," said Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York at the press conference outlining the effort.

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