• A Senate Plan Alters Waiting Periods for Immigration

    WASHINGTON — The nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants would have to wait a full decade for a green card but could earn citizenship just three years after that, under a provision being finalized by a bipartisan group of eight senators working to craft an overhaul of immigration law, several people with knowledge of the negotiations said.

    Taken together, the two waiting periods would provide the nation’s undocumented workers with a path to United States citizenship in 13 years, matching the draft of a plan by President Obama to offer full participation in American democracy to millions who are living in fear of deportation.

    The arrangement would shrink the amount of time it takes to become a naturalized citizen, from five years to three years. But in an appeal to Republicans, it would also extend to 10 years, from 8, the amount of time that illegal immigrants must wait before receiving permission to work in the United States permanently.

    Such a compromise might give both sides something to crow about: Republicans could argue that they pushed for a longer waiting period before an immigrant could get a green card, which allows its holder to remain and work in the United States indefinitely. Democrats could say that undocumented workers would become citizens faster.

    March 17, 2013

    “It is an unusual construction, but it gets them to citizenship in the same time as the administration plan,” said Kevin Appleby, the director of migration policy at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Most importantly, it eliminates the prospect of a permanent underclass by ensuring that, in time, all will have the opportunity to become Americans.”

    Negotiations among the senators have intensified significantly in recent days as they push toward a goal of announcing comprehensive immigration legislation in early April. Senators from both parties and their staff met for hours on Thursday as they struggled to overcome obstacles that several people familiar with the negotiations said could hinder a deal in the weeks ahead.

    Among those obstacles is a continuing concern among Republicans that a three-year naturalization process for undocumented workers could give illegal immigrants a faster path to citizenship than people who enter legally. One possible solution, officials said, would be to reduce the wait for citizenship to three years for everyone. But they said the agreement could still unravel.

    “We can’t create a system where it’s faster for illegal immigrants than for legal immigrants,” said one Republican familiar with the internal debate who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Republicans are clear that they are not going to create a special pathway to citizenship.”

    The senators also remain at odds over a series of other major issues, including the establishment of a guest worker program for low-skilled immigrants; a better system for companies to verify the immigration status of job applicants; determining who has final authority to declare the borders secure; and modifying rules that prioritize the family members who can immigrate to the United States legally.

    One big sticking point has become the visa program for low-skilled, year-round, temporary workers. In February, the United States Chamber of Commerce and the A.F.L.-C.I.O. reached a compromise that acknowledged the need for a system that would allow businesses to meet their demand for lower-skilled labor, while still protecting American workers.

    But the two groups remain divided on the number of visas the new program should offer, said Randy Johnson, the chamber’s lead negotiator on immigration. The chamber, he said, wants 400,000 visas, while the A.F.L.-C.I.O. prefers a number in the “very, very low five figures.” Ana Avendaño, the director of immigration for the A.F.L.-C.I.O., refused to discuss a specific number, but said “the whole notion is to create a system that responds to the needs of the economy.”

    Lawmakers are also still debating how to improve the E-Verify system that employers use to check the immigration status of their workers. A high-tech, biometric identification card was deemed too costly; instead, the group is considering an enhanced E-Verify system that would allow employers to use photos to identify job applicants and would let workers provide answers to security questions to help prove their legal work status.

    But despite the remaining differences, the eight senators who are in negotiations are continuing to make steady progress toward an overall deal, according to people familiar with the talks. Mr. Obama, who has threatened to push forward with his own legislation if Senate efforts stalled, is satisfied with the current pace of talks, White House officials said.

    Even if the Senate passes an immigration overhaul later this spring or summer, it still faces an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled House. A group of House Republicans told Speaker John A. Boehner last week that they were close to releasing a set of principles to guide their own legislation.

    House Republicans would prefer to tackle an immigration overhaul in several smaller bills rather than one big bill. And many House Republicans want to offer illegal immigrants a legal status that stops short of a pathway to citizenship.

    But the momentum that appears to be most evident is the progress among senators on the path to citizenship. No immigration debate has been more contentious over the years than the question of whether, and how, illegal immigrants eventually become citizens.

    After last year’s election, when Hispanic voters overwhelmingly backed Mr. Obama’s bid for a second term, there now appears to be broad support in the Senate for a so-called path to citizenship. But the length of the waiting period has continued to be at the heart of the philosophical struggle between Democrats and Republicans.

    Draft legislation by the White House that came to light in news reports several weeks ago called for an eight-year waiting period before getting a green card. Republican senators, including Marco Rubio of Florida, had urged a wait that could take years longer.

    Republicans and Democrats believe that a 10-year wait for a green card would provide enough time to clear out the existing backlog of millions of immigration cases so that undocumented workers would not skip ahead of legal entrants. Currently, it can take up to 20 years to obtain a green card to work in the United States.

    And as a side benefit, waiting a decade would mean that the costs of the overhaul would not kick in until the second decade because undocumented workers do not qualify for government benefits until after they earn green cards. That means the 10-year cost estimates by the Congressional Budget Office would not include the expense of those benefits.

    Those with knowledge of the negotiations said the legislation would require that the existing immigration backlog be cleared up and the border be secured before undocumented workers receive green cards or citizenship.

    And the senators have already agreed that illegal immigrants would have to pay back taxes, pay a hefty fine and learn English before being eligible for green cards and citizenship.
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