MIAMI — President Barack Obama’s administration drafted legislation this month that could give undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship in eight years, require employers to check workers’ immigration status and increase penalties for those who break immigration law.
The ideas appear in three separate draft bills, obtained Monday by The Miami Herald, that closely resemble many of the reforms advanced in 2011 by Obama and, more recently, by Republican Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
Both Rubio and Obama, for instance, support special pathways to residency for those students and soldiers who were brought illegally to this country as children. In the White House draft legislation, the proposal closely resembles what’s known as the DREAM Act.
But in a sign of the politically fragile talks over immigration reform, Rubio reacted with a measure of fury Saturday when the proposals were first reported by USA Today.
“President Obama’s leaked immigration proposal is disappointing to those of us working on a serious solution,” Rubio said in a written statement that mischaracterized the White House’s involvement in disseminating the bills.
“The President’s bill repeats the failures of past legislation,” the statement continued. “It fails to follow through on previously broken promises to secure our borders, creates a special pathway that puts those who broke our immigration laws at an advantage over those who chose to do things the right way and come here legally.”
Rubio’s concerns are more about what’s not in the bills: more border security, improved tracking of immigrants who overstay their visas, a guest-worker program and an immigration system that attracts high-skilled workers.
Also the draft bills obtained by The Herald and USA Today show that, contrary to Rubio’s concern, the plan wouldn’t give illegal immigrants a chance to obtain citizenship before those who lawfully entered the country.
One of the draft bills, labeled “Title II Legalization,” explicitly lists a section that says undocumented immigrants applying for legal residency must go to the “BACK OF THE LINE.”
That section says an “alien” may not apply to become a lawful permanent resident for eight years or for “30 days after an immigrant visa has become available” for those who lawfully entered or attempted to enter this country.
The eight-year provision was an estimate — not a hard-and-fast policy proposal — for how long the lawful-immigrant line-clearing would take, an official said.
The White House insists it didn’t leak the draft legislation and doesn’t intend to push its proposals because Obama wants to defer to Rubio and his fellow members of the Gang of Eight, the bipartisan group of senators hammering out an immigration plan.
Rubio, generally adored by the conservative pundits, has become the most high-profile Republican associated with immigration reform, which has largely failed due to GOP opposition in the past.
White House officials reached out to each of the eight senator’s offices, including Rubio’s, to soothe nerves and allay any concerns that the president was trying to trump the Senate’s efforts.
“We’ve not proposed anything to Capitol Hill yet,” Denis McDonough, Obama’s staff chief, said Sunday on ABC’s This Week program. “We’re going to be ready. We have developed each of these proposals so we have them in a position so that we can succeed.”
Much of the immigration proposal resembles language from the 2007 comprehensive immigration reform plan that died in Congress. So there’s not much new.
Still, the proposal gives a glimpse of what the White House sees as important.
And the proposals that have surfaced so far don’t go far enough for Rubio when it comes to border security.
Since and before his election to the U.S. Senate in 2010, Rubio has said the United States needs to make the border more secure. He has called for more fences, remote-control drones and border agents.
Under a plan pushed by Rubio, illegal immigrants wouldn’t get a chance at getting a green card until an advisory group verified that the border is secure. How that would be determined is unclear.
But Rubio and his fellow senators plan to release specifics in the coming weeks when they unveil their legislation.
The legislation also would clarify how undocumented immigrants get legal status — or become a “Lawful Prospective Immigrant” in the White House legislation — and when they can apply for citizenship.
Both Obama and Rubio generally believe in a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented and say they should submit to criminal background checks, pay fines, back taxes and learn English.
The White House bill also says the Lawful Prospective Immigrant must give “biometric” information and should show an “understanding of the history and Government of the United States.”
Rubio’s decision to support a pathway to citizenship stands in stark contrast to his rhetoric on the campaign trail.
In a May, 2010 interview with the conservative “Human Events” publication, Rubio said giving a pathway to citizenship undermines border security.
“You’re never going to be able to do that,” he said, “if you have an immigration system that says ‘come to this country illegally. If you’re able to stay here long enough, you’re able to stay here forever.’ And you’re never going to have a legal immigration system that works if you grant amnesty.”
Later, in a CNN debate, Rubio said that “earned path to citizenship is basically code for amnesty.”
One of the White House draft bills calls for an unspecified increase in Border Patrol agents and technological assets used to monitor border security.
Still, the White House legislation subtly takes issue with the Republican concern that the border isn’t secure. In the draft labeled “Title I Border Interior Enforcement,” the legislation lists about three pages of border-security stats printed as Congressional findings of fact.
The first finding: “Today, our borders are more secure than at any time in history.”
Aside from the emphasis on border security, there appears to be relatively little in the White House draft proposals that conflicts with what Rubio wants.
Though The Herald obtained three pieces of draft legislation ranging from 45 to 95 pages each, White House officials are preparing other drafts in case the Senate fails. Some of the documents also include language the White House wouldn’t push for, such as allowing so-called “chain migration,” which could permit a once-undocumented immigrant to bring family members lawfully into the United States.
Some of the measures in the current drafts would:
—Establish border-patrol “community liaison offices” along the southern and the northern borders.
—Make Indian tribes “adversely affected by illegal immigration” eligible for grants.
—Collect statistics relating to border-crossing deaths
—Increase fines and prison sentences for those who evade border-enforcement officers, commit immigration fraud or smuggle anything from drugs to people to cash.
—Require employers to check the immigration status of employees.
—Study the new system to verify immigration employment
—Increase the number of immigration judges
—Begin the issuance of “fraud-resistant, tamper-resistant, and wear-resistant Social Security cards.”
—Give “temporary protection for victims of crime, labor and employment violations” so that illegal immigrants can help law enforcement.
—Establish new fees to pay for the legalization of the undocumented
U.S. Rep. Joe Garcia, D-Fla., said the president’s proposal is “a good place to start. It encompasses everything Rubio’s talking about. Except it has Obama’s name on it.”
“It’s part of what’s wrong with Washington,” Garcia said. “There’s this whole construct: if it’s theirs, I can’t support it. If Obama’s behind it, Republicans are against it.”