On the eve of President Barack Obama's long-awaited immigration reform
proposal, political leaders and activists in Wisconsin reacted with optimism
-- tempered by caution -- to a plan released Monday by U.S. senators that
outlined a "tough but fair" path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented
The senators' framework for overhauling the nation's immigration laws is just five pages. It calls for securing the border, addressing visa overstays, creating an effective system for employers to verify immigration status, allowing more low-skill workers into the country and establishing an agricultural worker program.
Once the border is secured, a path to citizenship would be created for those already here illegally. It would include passing a background check and paying fines and taxes to qualify for "probationary status" that could lead to permanent residency or a green card after others already in line.
The senators' proposal and Tuesday's announcement by the president come amid a rapidly shifting political environment, driven by the results of November's elections, in which Obama and other Democrats capitalized on their popularity with Hispanics. Obama got 71% of the Latino vote in November compared with 27% for Republican Mitt Romney. Many Republicans have acknowledged that improving their standing is critical.
"Elections, elections," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of the eight co-sponsors of the legislation. "The Republican Party is losing the support of our Hispanic citizens. And we realize that there are many issues on which we think we are in agreement with our Hispanic citizens, but this is a pre-eminent issue with those citizens."
In addition to McCain, the sponsors are Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Democrats Charles Schumer of New York, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Richard Durbin of Illinois and Robert Menendez of New Jersey.
Several have worked for years on the issue. The group claims a notable newcomer in Rubio, a potential 2016 presidential candidate whose conservative bona fides may help smooth the way for support among conservatives.
Still, passage by the Democratic-controlled Senate is far from assured, and a taller hurdle could come later in the House, which is dominated by conservative Republicans who've shown little interest in immigration overhaul.
Rachel Buff, an associate professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an expert in immigration and immigration history, said it was the organized Latino electorate that was responsible for insisting comprehensive immigration reform be dealt with.
"The biggest evidence is Senator Marco Rubio's awareness that immigration reform has to be priority, and the president made that clear in his inaugural address," she said.
But she said she's concerned that border security has to be first and that there's no definition of when that's achieved. She said there are also concerns that electronic verification of a person's identity could lead to a national ID.
The senators' plan is expected to closely align with one the president will unveil Tuesday. The White House called the Senate proposal a "big deal" because it embraces a path to citizenship.
But quietly, a series of administration policy changes in recent months already has begun to transform how illegal immigrants live, work and go to school in the United States. In addition to last summer's announcement to defer deportations and give work permits to hundreds of thousands of undocumented youth, the White House announced last month that it was going to make legal permanent residency easier for many illegal immigrants who are immediate relatives of U.S. citizens.
When Obama announces his measure in Las Vegas, local immigrant activist Christine Neumann-Ortiz will be in the room, along with a striking worker from Palermo's pizza.
Neumann-Ortiz, the director and founder of Voces de la Frontera, an immigrant rights and low-wage worker center, was invited to attend the event by the AFL-CIO. The AFL-CIO and its national president, Richard Trumka, is one of a number of groups invited to be present for the announcement.
Reacting to the senators' proposal, Neumann-Ortiz said, "Broadly speaking, it's very encouraging because it shows momentum and a significant consensus around a path to citizenship, which is a major development."
Buffalo County dairy farmer John Rosenow, who has pushed for years to try to get comprehensive immigration reform for the dairy industry, which uses immigrant workers, said he also was pleased with the framework -- although he noted that a lot of details have yet to be worked out.
"It's the best I've seen in 10 years and I think generally it's really, really good," he said. "And I'm really pleased that it was a bipartisan effort."
He said he especially liked that the "special needs and importance of agricultural workers" were spelled out in the proposal. Under the plan, undocumented farm workers who "have been performing very important and difficult work to maintain America's food supply while earning subsistence wages" could earn a path to citizenship through a different and presumably more lenient visa process for agricultural workers.
Paul Zimmerman, a lobbyist with the Wisconsin Farm Bureau, said the bureau has been working nationally for the past decade to get immigration reform passed, but consensus could not be found. "The fact that something has been proposed is positive, and we look forward to working with it," he said.
Key is the details
U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, a Janesville Republican, speaking in a meeting with Journal Sentinel editors and reporters, said Monday that he had not yet seen the new immigration proposal, but that's he's generally endorsed the principles outlined by Rubio.
Better border security, a good employer verification system and what Ryan termed "earned legalization" for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants need to be part of any package, he said.
Ryan said he prefers immigration reform to be broken into smaller pieces instead of dealing with a big comprehensive bill that might "collapse of its own weight."
But he said he believes immigration reform is doable this year.
U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Republican from Menomonee Falls who fueled national marches a few years ago when he proposed criminalizing illegal immigrants, echoed some of Ryan's concerns, saying "the devil is in the details."
"I want to see actual legislation and assess the intended and unintended consequences of the policies. Extending amnesty to those who came here illegally or overstayed their visas is dangerous waters," he said in a statement. "We are a nation of laws, and I will evaluate any proposal through that matrix."
Nationally, Rosemary Jenks, director of government relations for Numbers USA, issued a statement that called the Senate proposal "Amnesty 2.0 -- meaningless enforcement measures, mass amnesty and increases in legal immigration, with taxpayers left to foot the bill."
Don Walker of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report, along with Journal Sentinel wire services.
Distributed by MCT Information Services
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