Undocumented immigrants face major hurdles, more than decade long wait for U.S. citizenship

Pathway to citizenship? Try pathway of probation.

Though bashed as "amnesty" by hardliners, the congressional plans to legalize the status of undocumented immigrants treat them like law breakers who need to watch their step for more than a dozen years.

They’ll have to pay fines, get fingerprinted, show they’re crime-free taxpayers and — little reported until now — check in periodically with a probation-like immigration system to make sure they’re in good standing with the law, according to Democrats and Republicans familiar with the Senate’s proposed legislation, which will be released Tuesday.

Those who miss a scheduled payment of their fines, upwards of $2,000, could lose the right to stay in the United States.

The earliest that most of the currently undocumented immigrants could become citizens: 13 years from the date of passage of the act.

That timeline becomes longer if the federal government doesn’t meet timelines to make good on creating a new visa-tracking system, ensuring employers don’t knowingly hire the undocumented and securing the border — at a cost of at least $5 billion, according to one version of the Senate bill.

The long path could mean that 10 percent or more of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country probably won’t be legalized at the outset of the act’s passage. Thousands more probably won’t become citizens.

The bill’s law-and-order aspects are a must to ensure passage in the conservative House.

Less reported: the measures could prove too conservative for liberals and Democrats, who control the Senate and White House.

“It’s a delicate balancing act,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican and leader on the issue in the House.

“The extreme left and the extreme right will bash us, criticize us,” he said.

Diaz-Balart refuses to discuss any details about a House plan that will be released in the coming weeks. His Republican Miami-Dade neighbor, Sen. Marco Rubio, is giving more details Sunday by appearing on every major talk show, including Univision’s “Al Punto.”

Under the Senate plan pushed by Rubio and the Senate’s so-called “Gang of Eight,” immigrants who came illegally after Jan. 1, 2012, can’t apply for legal status. They face living in this country illegally until they leave or are deported.

The window to apply for legal probationary status may vary from six months to a year after the act’s passage. And that window won’t even open for six months or more — when the federal government is supposed to present a plan for border security.

The longer it takes the government to issue a border-security plan, the longer it takes for people to simply apply for legal status under the probationary immigration status.

That’s the first of a series of so-called “triggers” in the Senate bill that link the pathway to citizenship to tangible progress on overhauling the immigration system.

The second trigger is in three parts:

1) E-Verify: The computer-tracking system that employers can use to check the immigration status of an employee or potential employee used by slightly more than 400,000 businesses right now in the United States. Its use would become required for millions of employers. To do that, the federal government will have to revamp and improve the system, which some say is unreliable.

2) Entry-exit: Right now, immigrants who come to the United States have to check in with the government upon arrival. But they don’t have to check out. Now they would have to say when they’re leaving. That way, authorities would know who has overstayed their visas, a category of people who comprise an estimated 40 percent of the undocumented population. This system could take a decade to build.

3) Border security: Though border crossings are down and enforcement levels and deportations are up, the government doesn’t have complete awareness of the 2,000-mile border the United States shares with Mexico. Under the Senate bill, the government would build more fences and watchtowers and install detection devices, hidden cameras and remote-control drones to monitor the border. The goal: monitor 100 percent of the border to catch 90 percent of illegal crossers. If that’s not happening after five years, a commission of border-state governors who are supposed to help finish the job.

If these conditions are met on the statutory timelines, then those probationary immigrants can start applying for legal residency — green cards — within a decade after passage of the act.

By most accounts, Rubio has been the member of the Senate’s so-called “Gang of Eight” pushing most for border security and more restrictions on the pathway to citizenship, which he initially opposed.

Rubio’s staff refuses comment, but one Republican staffer said they’re calling the bill more of a “pathway to enforcement.” Said another: “This isn’t amnesty. It’s probation.”

The tough talk and emphasis on enforcement and probation-like status of newly legalized immigrants is a must to placate the right, who are still haunted by the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. The law became infamous for its amnesty, fraud and lax enforcement.

But it’s still not enough for the Immigration and Customs Enforcement union.

Chris Crane, of the National ICE Council, said in a statement that he believed there’s too much emphasis on “legalization, or amnesty, before enforcement is accomplished. ... I would then respectfully call on Senator Rubio to follow through on his commitment to the American people — and his pledge to accomplish enforcement before legalization — and to leave the Gang of 8.”

Rubio’s office said the comments were unfortunate because Crane hasn’t read the bill, which could be up to 1,500 pages long and hasn’t been released.

On the left, advocates are being more circumspect.

“There are concerns,” said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center. “But we’re in wait and see mode. The question we have: is the spirit of the law to be punitive or inclusive?”

The pathway to citizenship isn’t the only controversial aspect of the bill.

Lawmakers want to move away from family based immigration by limiting the number of non-nuclear family members of a U.S. citizen who can gain citizenship.

High-skilled workers and others needed by the economy would get a higher priority and could account for about half of all new immigrants instead of the current amount, less than 15 percent.

“I don’t think it’s good to move away from family-based immigration,” said Kathy Bird-Caicedo, with the Florida Immigrant Coalition. “But we need to see the bill.”

Bird-Caicedo, who praised both Rubio and Diaz-Balart, said a more pressing concern was the record pace of deportations under President Obama’s administration, as many as 1,400 daily.

“Enough of the enforcement already,” she said. “I wish the primary concern was family unity.”

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