AP source: Immigration bill could exclude many

Marco Rubio
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., at a Capitol Hill news conference in a file photo.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File

By ERICA WERNER, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A promised path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally may leave out hundreds of thousands of them.

Bipartisan Senate legislation would make legalization and ultimately citizenship available only to those who arrived in the U.S. before Dec. 31, 2011, according to a Senate aide with knowledge of the proposals. Anyone who came after that date would be subject to deportation.

The bill, expected to be introduced next week, also would require applicants to document that they were in the country before the cutoff date, have a clean criminal record and show enough employment or financial stability that they're likely to stay off welfare, said the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the proposals had not been made public.

Although illegal immigration to the U.S. has been dropping, tens of thousands of people still arrive annually, so the cutoff date alone could exclude a large number of people. The aide said hundreds of thousands could be excluded overall. That came as a disappointment to immigrant rights groups that had been hoping that anyone here as of the date of enactment of the bill could be able to become eligible for citizenship.

"The goal is to deal with the 11 million folks who are here without status, and the wider road that we can create for them to get on that path that they can ultimately get residency and citizenship, the better," Angela Kelley, vice president for immigration policy at the liberal Center for American Progress, said Friday. "A cutoff date that lops off all of 2012 and whatever part of 2013, that's going to be at least a couple hundred thousand people. It's not ideal."

But Republicans in the eight-member immigration negotiating group have sought strict criteria on legal enforcement and border security as the price for their support for a path to citizenship, which is still opposed by some as amnesty. The aide said that Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who's working to sell the plan to the right, pushed Democrats in the group for an even earlier cutoff date, while the Democrats proposed Jan. 1, 2013. The date negotiators settled on was a compromise but also an outcome Rubio can tout to conservatives.

Indeed Rubio's chief of staff, Cesar Conda, took to Twitter this week to describe the bill as tough on illegal immigration.

"Freezes illegal population. No special pathway. No amnesty," Conda wrote. "Registration for provisional status will not be open-ended and there will be a physical presence requirement barring recent arrivals."

Rubio is to appear on all five network and cable talk shows this Sunday -- as well as Univision and Telemundo -- to discuss the legislation. Negotiators are aiming to introduce the bill on Tuesday. Details on the criminal record requirement were still being finalized, but anyone with a felony conviction was likely to be ineligible, the aide said.

It's impossible to know exactly how many immigrants have arrived illegally in the U.S. since Dec. 31, 2011, because such statistics aren't collected and the numbers that have been developed aren't that recent, according to Jeffrey Passel, a senior demographer at the Pew Hispanic Center. One study found that some 384,000 immigrants entered illegally in 2009.

Despite their concerns over the cutoff date, immigration advocates emphasized they intend to evaluate the bill in totality and still expect to find much to like. Kelley and others also pointed out that the last time the U.S. enacted a major legalization program -- with legislation signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986 that legalized close to 3 million people -- it included a cutoff date of four years before enactment. So by comparison, the proposal in the expected new bill looks good.

Advocates also will be looking to see how much will be charged to immigrants here illegally in fees and fines before they can become citizens and what other requirements are imposed, such as English proficiency.

The legislation would put millions here illegally on a 13-year path to citizenship, while also toughening border security requirements, mandating that all employers check the legal status of workers, and allowing tens of thousands of new high- and low-skilled workers into the country with new visa programs. The legislation is expected to include a new emphasis on merit-based immigration over family ties.

Also Friday agriculture growers and the United Farm Workers gave their formal approval to a hard-fought deal finalizing one of the new visa programs, for agriculture workers. Tom Nassif, president of the Western Growers Association, said the deal would allow up to 337,000 workers into the country through 2021 to labor in the nation's fields and farms. After 2021, the agriculture secretary would set numbers of visas.

The deal also establishes minimum wage rates across different agriculture occupations and allows farm workers already in the country illegally to obtain permanent resident green cards in as little as three years, as long as they work 150 days a year in agriculture, Nassif said. "I think both sides believe that we truly made history today. There was jubilation," he said.