WASHINGTON -- The U.S. immigration system would undergo dramatic changes under a bipartisan Senate bill introduced Wednesday that puts a new focus on prospective immigrants’ merit and employment potential, while seeking to end illegal immigration by creating legal avenues for workers to come here.
The bill would put the 11 million immigrants in the country illegally (an estimated 740,000 in Florida) on a 13-year path to U.S. citizenship that would cost each $2,000 in fines plus additional fees, and would begin only after steps have been taken to secure the border.
The sweeping legislation also would remake the nation’s inefficient legal immigration system, creating new immigration opportunities for tens of thousands of high- and low-skilled workers, as well as a new “merit visa” aimed at bringing people with talents to the U.S.
The “Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013” was filed around 2 a.m. Wednesday by Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, one of the so-called Gang of Eight senators, including Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida. The group spent months putting together the 844-page bill.
Some Republicans criticized it as amnesty, while some groups on the left said it was unnecessarily punitive. President Barack Obama says the bill is a compromise that doesn’t give anyone everything they want — including him. But he urges the Senate to move it forward.
Under the legislation, employers would face tough new requirements to check the legal status of all workers. Billions of dollars would be poured into border security, and millions of people who’ve been waiting overseas for years, sometimes decades, in legal-immigration backlogs would see their cases speeded up.
Overall, the changes represent the most dramatic overhaul to U.S. immigration law in more than a quarter-century, and Congress’ first major attempt to confront the polarizing issue since bipartisan legislation in 2007 collapsed on the Senate floor.
The bill is the result of months of secretive negotiations among Schumer, Rubio, and the six other lawmakers: Democrats Dick Durbin, of Illinois, Robert Menendez, of New Jersey, and Michael Bennet, of Colorado; and Republicans John McCain, of Arizona, Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, and Jeff Flake, of Arizona.
Said Rubio in a statement on Wednesday: “This bill marks the beginning of an important debate, and I believe it will fix our broken system ... While I believe this legislation is a strong conservative effort that will accomplish all these things and tries to make the best of the imperfect reality we face, it’s not perfect. But I am also confident that an open and transparent process that welcomes public input is going to make it even better.”
Even harder work lies ahead now that legislative language will become public for other lawmakers and groups on all sides to examine and react to. The Senate Judiciary Committee will hold hearings on the bill Friday and Monday and likely move to amend and vote on it in May, with action on the Senate floor expected later in the summer.
The conservative-controlled House also must act, and the outcome there is even more uncertain, although a bipartisan group of House members has also been working on a comprehensive immigration bill.
In South Florida, Miami-Dade Superintendent Alberto Carvalho and Miami-Dade School Board members cast their support behind the bill on Wednesday.
“For us, this is a matter of fairness, a matter of justice, and obviously a matter of law and order,” said board member Carlos Curbelo on Wednesday during a break from their monthly meeting. “Our current, broken immigration system costs the school district over $20 million a year that no one reimburses us for.”
“Often times we educate children that are undocumented,” said Curbelo. “They spend 10 or 12 years in our schools only to face deportation or in other cases to be denied access to higher education. These children reach dead-ends after we have invested tens of thousands of dollars in them.”
Maria Rodriguez, executive director for the Miami-based Florida Immigrant Coalition, welcomed the legislation.
“The Senate’s Gang of 8 has made a serious step forward towards creating a new immigration system,” she said in a statement. “We hope that this effort is supported by all of our Florida members of Congress, across party lines.”
Under the bill, immigrants here illegally could gain a provisional legal status six months after enactment as long as they meet certain criteria, and if the Homeland Security Department has moved forward on plans to secure the border. They would remain in that provisional status for 10 years, able to work legally but barred from federal benefits like welfare or healthcare. After 10 years they could seek green cards conferring permanent legal status, and three years after that they could petition for citizenship.
They would have to pay a total of $2,000 in fines along the way, and at least hundreds more in fees, though that number has not been determined. Immigrants would be barred from seeking citizenship if they have been convicted of a felony or three or more misdemeanors, and no one who arrived in the country after Dec. 31, 2011, would be eligible.
Miami Herald reporter David Smiley contributed to this report.