April 18, 2013
BY MARKUS SCHMIDT Richmond Times-Dispatch
Just hours after its formal introduction early Wednesday, the bipartisan Senate proposal on immigration reform has sparked an intense debate, as lawmakers and groups on all sides digest the 844 pages of legislation designed to fix chronic problems in the system and put an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship.
Democratic lawmakers from Virginia praised the measure, while Republicans exercised restraint, waiting to see how the bill fares in the Senate in coming weeks.
“My initial impressions are very positive,” said Sen. Mark R. Warner, D-Va. “I am encouraged to see a consensus forming to take action to reform our broken immigration system. Immigrants in Virginia are small-business owners, entrepreneurs, agricultural workers, top students, neighbors and community leaders. These new Americans help make our commonwealth stronger.”
Sen. Timothy M. Kaine, D-Va., said he was “especially encouraged by the expedited green card process for young people who were brought here at a young age and have only known this country as home.”
Providing millions of undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship while uniting families, protecting workers, and securing borders is critical to any comprehensive immigration reform package, said Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott, D-3rd.
“While I am still in the process of reviewing the 844-page bill, the Senate immigration bill appears to be a step in the right direction,” Scott said.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-7th, did not comment on the entire proposal but reiterated his support for the same key component praised by Kaine, which allows children of undocumented immigrants to live and work in the U.S.
“One area where I think we can find agreement is with the children, who are here through no fault of their own, and know no other nation as home,” Cantor said. “We should take every possible step to ensure they too can share in the American dream.”
Rep. Robert J. Wittman, R-1st, said fixing the nation’s broken immigration system must start with securing borders and enforcing immigration laws already on the books.
“I look forward to reading the Senate’s proposal in detail and following this issue as this legislation moves through the Senate,” Wittman said.
Echoing Wittman, Rep. J. Randy Forbes, R-4th, said the cornerstone to any successful plan must be the enforcement of existing immigration laws and the nation’s ability to secure its borders.
“This proposal has started a meaningful discussion, but there is still much left to be done before I can support its passage,” Forbes said.
The “Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013,” drafted by a group of four Republican and four Democratic senators during months of negotiations, was filed around 2 a.m. Wednesday by Democratic Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York.
It is the first comprehensive immigration proposal since a Senate bill with similar intentions died in 2007.
Essentially, the bill would:
• allocate $4.5 billion to increase security measures at the U.S.-Mexico border to deter or capture more than 90 percent of illegal border-crossers. If this rate has yet to be reached after five years, Congress would fund border security with an additional $2 billion and create a commission consisting of Southwest border state governors and security experts to find a way to fill the quota.
• require the Department of Homeland Security to implement a mandatory system for employment verification known as E-Verify in all businesses nationwide. The system would need to track those who enter and exit through seaports and airports. The current system is limited to tracking only those who enter.
• give the roughly 12 million undocumented immigrants a decade-plus-long “path to citizenship” after the border-security measures have been implemented. The process would be shorter for some agricultural workers and young immigrants under the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act.
• streamline the visa process by increasing the number of high-skilled work visas from 65,000 to 110,000 and paying higher wages. The law would also create a new low-skilled worker program called the W visa, allowing for up to 75,000 foreigners to work in the United States legally over four years. The existing agricultural worker program (H2-A visas) would be scrapped.
• change the current family reunification statute by allowing spouses and children into the country while cutting back on allowing siblings and adult, married children to join their families in the United States.
Formal debate on the proposal is expected to begin Friday with hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee, with the goal of a Senate floor vote on the bill in late May or early June.
President Barack Obama urged the Senate to move the proposal forward.
A bipartisan group of House members working on a similar immigration reform measure, not including any lawmakers from Virginia, praised the Senate proposal, saying their version isn’t far behind.
“Americans want to see the nation’s broken immigration system fixed, and they know it will take bipartisanship to solve this problem in a sensible and rational way,” the group said in a statement released Wednesday.
Dan Choi, president of the Board of the Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans in Virginia, cited concern that the measure would eliminate visas reserved for foreign siblings of U.S. citizens.
“One of our priorities is family reunification and ensuring that children of all ages, and the siblings of U.S. citizens, are given a chance to reunite with loved ones as part of reform,” Choi said.
Isabel Castillo, volunteer with the liberal grass-roots group Virginia Organizing, called the measure “not perfect, but a step in the right direction.”
Castillo said the bill would allow the 38,000 undocumented immigrants in the commonwealth who came as minors, herself included, to find a place in the workforce legally.
“I’m hopeful that young people will have the opportunity to thrive in the U.S. We have been educated here, we have worked hard, and we only want the chance to succeed here,” she said.
Castillo, 28, came to Virginia from Mexico at the age of 6. She holds a bachelor’s degree in social work, but has not been able to work legally.
“I want to use my degree to contribute to our community,” she said.