WASHINGTON - A bipartisan group of senators is nearing agreement on a comprehensive immigration bill that would put illegal immigrants on a 13-year path to citizenship, officials with outside groups keeping up with the talks said Thursday.
The legislation also would install new criteria for border security, allow more high- and low-skilled workers to come to the U.S. and hold businesses to tougher standards on verifying their workers are in the country legally, according to outside groups and lawmakers involved. Together, the measures represent the most sweeping changes in immigration law in decades.
The senators in the so-called Gang of Eight were meeting for hours at a time daily this week trying to complete a deal. There were still big disagreements on some issues, but they hoped to resolve most of them before Congress began a two-week recess at week's end. That would allow them to meet a self-imposed deadline to present their legislation next month.
In this Jan. 28, file photo Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., center, speaks at a Capitol Hill news conference with a bipartisan group of leading senators to announce their agreement on the principles of sweeping legislation to rewrite the nation's immigration laws. Eight senators meet in private several times a week, alternating between, from left, Sen. John McCain’s, R-Ariz., and Sen. Charles Schumer’s, D-N.Y., offices, and in a capital riven by partisanship and gridlock, they are determined to be the exception and actually get something done.
"About 90 percent of the issues, including the path to citizenship, are settled," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told Hispanic media Thursday, according to his office. He said he was putting "more time into this than any other single issue."
The group was under pressure to speed up its work. Protesters converged Thursday on Schumer's office to accuse him of breaking his initial promise to have the bill done in March. Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., whose panel would take up the legislation, complained this week that the group was taking too long. As a result, Leahy said, his committee won't be able to complete writing the bill itself in April, as he had hoped.
Several officials with outside groups said the biggest remaining areas of disagreement dealt with legal rather than illegal immigration. Top among them was a proposed program to bring in tens of thousands of new immigrants to fill low-skilled jobs. It had been the subject of difficult negotiations between the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and AFL-CIO.
The two sides made substantial progress, including agreeing on a cap of 200,000 visas in the new program, but they continued to disagree on wages for the new workers, according to one official. Senators were mediating offers and counteroffers.
The officials described the status of the discussions on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about them.
As senators struggled with the legal immigration question, Schumer and others said consensus had formed on details of a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country, even though that issue tended to cause the most public consternation.
The new bill would contemplate a 10-year wait for illegal immigrants already in the U.S. before they could get a green card allowing them permanent residency, senators have said. During that time they would be in a provisional legal status and would not have to return to their home countries as current law requires.
Once they got the green card, they would have to wait three years to be able to apply for citizenship, compared to the five-year wait that most green-card holders currently have to abide, outside officials say they've been told. The new three-year wait was first reported by The New York Times.
That added up to 13 years, which would put the Senate bill in line with immigration legislation drafted by President Barack Obama, which he has said he would offer only if the Gang of Eight process stalls.