The introduction overnight of the most far-reaching immigration overhaul in decades marks only the first chapter in a long battle that will test emotions and political wits.
Supporters of a comprehensive overhaul on each side of the immigration debate have spent the past several months pressing a small bipartisan group senators to introduce legislation, but those same activists now must wrestle with the reality of what they must relinquish to accomplish their ultimate goals – whether those are a path to citizenship, securing the border or improving a political party’s future electoral prospects.
For Latino advocates and civil liberties activists, that means swallowing the idea of a southern border armed with airborne drones and a gun-toting military. It means accepting that family reunification might no longer be the heart of the nation’s immigration system.
For conservatives who hold dear the rule of law, that means allowing 11 million people who either came here illegally or who illegally overstayed their visas a chance to remain in the country and eventually become U.S. citizens.
“This has something for everybody to hate,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
Flake is part of the so-called “Gang of Eight” senators who introduced legislation that would put most of the 11 million people here illegally on a path to citizenship, but not until the borders are deemed secure.
Two other members, Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and John McCain, R-Ariz., visited the White House on Tuesday at President Barack Obama’s request to review the proposal.
After the meeting, Obama said the proposal was consistent with his own principles on immigration and urged the Senate to move the bill forward. “This bill is clearly a compromise, and no one will get everything they wanted, including me,” Obama said in a statement.
The bill, which was released at 2 a.m. Wednesday, is scheduled to receive its first hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday; a second hearing is expected Monday.
The controversial bill also would give thousands of deported individuals a chance to return. It would require mandatory use of worker verification systems to ensure those hired are in the country legally. And it would appropriate billions of dollars to hire thousands more Border Patrol agents and would authorize National Guard deployment along the southern border in an attempt to prevent 90 percent of illegal crossings.
The calls to address the nation’s broken immigration system are greater than they have been in years, with some of the most powerful interest groups – including business, labor, agriculture and religion – supporting a comprehensive overhaul.
The agreement remains fragile, as immigration remains an emotional and politically divisive issue in many parts of the country. But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has a history of changing views on immigration, said the current environment is better than it’s ever been for potential passage.
“If we fail this time, I don’t know when anybody would take this up,” Graham said. “I said last time this was the last best chance in a decade. This may be the last chance forever.”
The bipartisan proposal represents a major breakthrough toward figuring out a solution, according to Clarissa Martinez, the director of civic engagement and immigration at the National Council of La Raza. But she said she’s not ready “to sign on the dotted line.”
Martinez said there are aspects of the proposal she'd like to change, and she is bracing for aggressive attempts to kill or weaken efforts to legalize the 11 million.
Groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union have criticized the proposal for excluding people who will not be able to afford hefty fines and say it would waste federal dollars on unneeded border security.
Of course the left wants more, but Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said these were the kind of compromises required to reach a deal.
But he emphasized that up to 11 million people will have the chance to remain in the country and that some people previously deported for minor infractions may be eligible to return to the United States. He recounted how he fought for the provision by sharing the story of a Chicago mother whose husband was deported was eight years ago. She remained in Illinois to raise their two girls, one of whom is a U.S. citizen.
“His only violation was being here undocumented,” Durbin said. “He didn’t do anything else wrong. Now she is going to get her chance to reunify her family.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., another member of the Gang of Eight and a presumptive 2016 presidential hopeful, boasts the legislation has the toughest enforcement measures in American history.
But opponents, such as Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., charge that the enforcement plan lacks teeth, prioritizes legalization ahead of border security and ultimately would not be enforced. Sessions fears a repeat of the failed efforts to improve border security in the 1986 immigration overhaul that led millions of immigrants to flood into the United States.
And Sessions contends the newly legalized workers would pull down the wages of low-wage American workers, would increase unemployment and therefore would lead to more people receiving welfare because they don’t have jobs.
“It’s a moral thing,” he said. “Future flow has to take into account average working Americans who will not be advantaged by this system.”
The group often credited with killing the 2007 effort to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws, NumbersUSA, has sent hundreds of thousands of faxes to members of Congress opposing the legislation. President Roy Beck describes the proposal as “Obama-Rubio-Schumer comprehensive amnesty,” and he charges Rubio with broken promises that would put American workers last.
“We expect everybody to be unhappy,” McCain said. “But I would point out that for the first time, you have the Farm Bureau, you have the ag workers, you have the Chamber of Commerce, you have the AFL-CIO, you have every major interest on both sides of this issue have come together and are supporting this.
“Not because they like 100 percent of this, but because they think it’s the way to get immigration reform accomplished.”