Sunday, February 25, 2018
Politics

Immigration reform proposal finally released

WASHINGTON — Evelyn Rivera boiled inside as she watched her mother being put in the police car.

"I had to remain quiet and not reveal that I was undocumented as well," said Rivera, whose parents brought her to Florida from Colombia when she was 3 and overstayed a tourist visa.

The driving infraction that day in 2007 led to her mother being deported. Rivera, 24, hasn't seen her in person since.

If the broad proposal for immigration reform introduced Wednesday by a bipartisan group of U.S. senators becomes law, Rivera might get the chance.

One provision gives people who were deported for noncriminal reasons the opportunity to return to the United States and get on a 13-year path to citizenship with millions of others who crossed the border illegally or overstayed visas.

"It's really exciting," said Rivera, of Altamonte Springs. "But I wish that part of the bill would stay secret. I know we're going to have to fight like hell to keep it."

Her angst captured the mood as the 844-page bill was finally revealed, a mix of optimism, disappointment and hardening opposition. The proposal represents the broadest attempt at reform in more than 25 years and seeks a delicate political balance: providing tougher border security with a realistic handling of more than 11 million people here illegally.

The legislation would clear a backlog of 4.7 million visa applications, create a low-skill worker program, greatly expand high-skilled visas sought by tech companies and refocus the country's immigration policy from one based on family ties to a merit-based system. For young "Dreamers" such as Rivera, brought here by no fault of their own, it would offer a five-year path to citizenship.

On Friday, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act gets a critical first test during a Judiciary Committee hearing.

"Our immigration system is broken and it is time for a national conversation about how to fix it," the Senate authors said in a statement. "Our bipartisan proposal is a starting point, and will be strengthened by good-faith input and ideas from across the ideological spectrum. We look forward to multiple Senate hearings on this bill, an open committee process with amendments, and a full and fair debate in the Senate."

Details revealed Wednesday are vast and complex, setting the table for a monthslong fight. Critics on the right blasted the proposal as "amnesty," while some pro-reform advocates complained the path to citizenship is overly hard.

The provision that could reunite Rivera with her mother has already drawn scrutiny.

"This doesn't just grant amnesty," Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa said in a speech Tuesday night on the House floor as details began to trickle out. "It reaches backwards and gets people that have been sent home, where they can wake up in the country legally."

Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, a member of the Gang of 8 that crafted the bill, was working overtime to sell the plan as a purposeful balance, issuing a string of emails that read "Myth vs. Fact" and a video of him discussing key provisions. He also appeared on Mike Huckabee's radio show.

A big piece of misinformation came from conservative commentators who said the legislation would provide free cellphones to immigrants.

"That's not for the illegal immigrants," Rubio said on the Laura Ingraham Show. "That's for U.S. citizens and residents who live in the border region so that they can have access to calls," noting the proposal was around before he entered Congress.

On C-SPAN, a critic of immigration reform, Texas Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert, sought to tie the debate to the Boston Marathon bombing by asserting terrorists are being trained to act "Hispanic" and cross the southern border.

"Using a national tragedy to further his own anti-immigration reform agenda is not only shameful, but also a blatant attempt to disingenuously twist public sentiment at a vulnerable time," said Jennifer Korn, executive director of the Hispanic Leadership Network, a Republican-aligned group.

The tension highlights a rift within the GOP, law-and-order sentiment clashing with a desire to better appeal to Hispanics, a fast-growing electoral force that has overwhelmingly favored Democrats.

Despite the offensive, many Republicans are opposed to the citizenship pathway.

Not long after the bill is enacted, undocumented residents — there are roughly 740,000 in Florida — would be allowed to apply to become a "Registered Provisional Immigrant," a legal status that provides a work permit and removes the threat of deportation.

After 10 years, with fees reaching $2,000 and back taxes paid, those residents could seek a green card, which could lead to citizenship in three years.

The legislation mandates that a border security plan must be in place before that happens. It calls for $5 billion or more to be spent on additional fencing, personnel and surveillance, and that 90 percent of people who try to cross the border are caught.

Immigrant advocates in Florida had mixed views.

"The moment that so many have worked for is near," said Mi Familia Vota director Elena McCullough during a news conference in Ybor City. "We are hopeful to see a new immigration system in the making, but also concerned about some of the provisions that may hurt our communities."

Complaints focused on long waits for citizenship and accompanying fines, and the billions more that would be spent on border security.

But in Lakeland, Jesus Guevara, who migrated illegally from Mexico in 1990, said he would welcome the chance to stay and pay a fine.

The 41-year-old father of four faces a May 7 deportation order. "In Mexico, I have nothing," Guevara said.

When he isn't home, his children ask him to always call and check in, to make sure he hasn't been stopped on the road by an officer.

"I want to stay," he said. "I am desperate."

Such personal stories are being highlighted by pro-reform advocates, including several hundred Evangelical leaders who spread across Capitol Hill on Wednesday to meet with lawmakers and tell stories of immigrants who have swelled their congregations. They are focusing efforts on reluctant Republicans.

"Today we stand at the edge of the Jordan River. At the other side, lies a land full of promise," said Carlos Moran of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.

Far away in Florida, Evelyn Rivera thought of the possibility of seeing her mother again.

The bill would allow people who resided here prior to Dec. 31, 2011, and were deported for noncriminal reasons to apply as a Registered Provisional Immigrant. But they must be the spouse, child or parent of a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident. Young immigrants who were brought to the country as children illegally could also qualify.

Rivera herself is not a citizen — she would benefit under the bill's Dream Act provision — but two of her sisters are.

How many people could qualify for re-entry is unclear, though Senate officials said the number would not be huge.

Record deportations have occurred under President Barack Obama, angering the Hispanic community. The majority have been people who have committed crimes, but there are plenty of instances in which families were ripped apart. Rivera said she personally knows of about 10 stories.

Though her parents came to the United States illegally, Rivera said they should not be punished.

"They wanted a better future for our whole family. At that time in Colombia, Pablo Escobar was very much around. There were daily car bombs going off. My parents did what they had to do to make sure my family was safe."

Times staff writer Laura C. Morel contributed to this report.

     
       
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