A bipartisan group of eight United States senators on Tuesday passed a sweeping immigration bill that seeks to legalize the status of an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, including Caribbean nationals, residing in the U.S.
The bill is also aimed at reorienting future immigration by bringing Caribbean and other nationals to the U.S. based increasingly on the job skills and personal assets they can offer.
The bill, by four Democrats and four Republicans, is described as the most ambitious effort in at least 26 years to repair, update and reshape the American immigration system.
But immigration advocates say the part of the bill expected to draw the most controversy is a 13-year pathway to citizenship for immigrants who have been living in the U.S. illegally.
In an effort to make that proposal acceptable to Republicans who fear it could unleash a new wave of illegal immigration, the senators placed a series of conditions, or triggers, along the pathway, that would require the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to spend as much as US$6.5 billion over 10 years to increase enforcement and extend fencing along the Southwest border.
According to the bill, the border security programs would have to be fully operational before any immigrant, who had been in the U.S. illegally, would be able to apply for permanency, or green card, the first step toward becoming American citizens.
The bill includes a long list of “disqualifiers” that prevent Caribbean and other immigrants from becoming legal residents if they have any felony convictions or at least three misdemeanor convictions.
Illegal immigrants also would not be able to upgrade their status if they were ever convicted of a criminal offense under foreign law, voted unlawfully in the United States or are determined by the federal government to be a criminal, or national security or public health threat.
“There are serious civil rights concerns,” said Cecillia Wang, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) Immigrants’ Rights Project. “There shouldn’t be any kind of automatic disqualifiers.”
But Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), one of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” who wrote the legislation, said the bill strikes the right balance.
“If the ACLU drew up their bill, it wouldn’t pass the Senate,” he said. “We’ve made it clear, if you commit a serious crime, you shouldn’t be on the path to citizenship.”
After meeting with Schumer and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), President Barack Obama hailed the legislation as “largely consistent” with the principles he had laid out for sweeping immigration overhaul.
He said the provisions in the bill are “all common-sense steps that the majority of Americans support.
“This bill is clearly a compromise, and no one will get everything they wanted, including me,” he said. “But it is largely consistent with the principles that I have repeatedly laid out for comprehensive reform.”