A major stumbling block to overdue immigration reform has been how to deal with nearly 11 million illegal immigrants in the country. Liberals and immigrant rights groups have pushed for legalizing their status, but conservative opponents argue that legalization amounts to amnesty for breaking American laws and will only encourage more illegal immigration.
The back-to-back frameworks of immigration reform outlined by President Obama and a bipartisan group of senators this week would clear the way for illegal immigrants to legalize their presence and open a door to eventual citizenship.
The Senate plan would require illegal immigrants to register with the government and pass a criminal background check to qualify for probationary legal status allowing them to live and work here but still not be eligible for federal benefits. They would be required to learn English and civics and pay back taxes and a fine before applying for a green card granting them legal permanent residency as a step toward citizenship.
The amount of the fine, which was not specified, could be a deterrent to unskilled and low-income immigrants. It could be a lengthy wait for a green card since they would have to get in line behind legal immigrants who are here now waiting for a green card, but at least they would be able to live without fear of deportation or separation from family members who are here legally. Immigrants with a serious criminal history or those who pose a threat to security would be subject to deportation as they are now.
Before illegal immigrants could pursue a green card, stricter border security measures would have to be implemented in an appeal for support from conservatives, who fear any legalization plan would set off another wave of illegal immigration.
However, it is unrealistic to expect that 11 million illegal immigrants could be arrested and deported. A way has to be found to legalize their status and allow them to work openly, build their lives without fear of deportation and contribute to their communities, which the Senate plan does even without a guarantee of citizenship.
The Senate plan also addresses other long-standing issues. It would establish a visa entry-exit system to track visitors. Green cards would be available to those with advanced degrees in science, math, technology or engineering.
Businesses would be able to hire more low-skilled workers, if they cannot find Americans to fill them. An agricultural worker program would also be established.
The Senate plan offers what should be a workable framework for overhauling the nations immigration laws this year.