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Immigration Reform 2013 Will See Historic Changes For 11 Million Undocumented People in the U.S.

President Barack Obama on Tuesday will lay out a major immigration overhaul, highlighting the need to fix the broken immigration system so that it is "fairer for and helps grow the middle class by ensuring everyone plays by the same rules."

The White House's immigration reform plan expands on a blueprint it released in 2011, but Obama will stop short of offering his own piece of legislation because of the progress made by the Senate "Gang of Eight." 

That Senate plan, titled “A Bipartisan Framework for Immigration Reform,” was unveiled on Monday. The senators’ proposal confronts the most controversial issue – how to handle the millions of undocumented immigrants in the country – by setting up a system under which immigrants illegally residing in the United States can register with the government, pay a fine, and be given probationary legal residency including the right to work.

What’s at stake? 

An estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants reside in the United States, as well as a huge line of persons waiting to get visas or full citizenship. These residents’ unclear legal status has led to them being treated as second-class citizens, exploited and discriminated against. America could use this pool of workers to shore up the economy and keep the population growing, but border security concerns, citizenship requirements, lack of legislative action, and xenophobia have combined to prevent real action on the immigration question.

What’s changed?

Most importantly: many Republicans now support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, a position previously deplored by many House GOP members as “amnesty.” That position switch removed the last major barrier to a bipartisan solution; it was very likely influenced by the November general election in which GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney was able to gather less than a quarter of the Latino vote, contributing to his loss.

What has Congress proposed?

Four Democratic and four Republican senators have recently proposed a plan titled “A Bipartisan Framework for Immigration Reform,” which includes the path to citizenship. Undocumented immigrants would be able to register for a work visa and would be granted “end of the line” status for full citizenship. Their proposal requires the federal government to work with a commission of border state law enforcement authorities, governors, and other officials to certify the U.S.-Mexico border is secure before taking any action on immigration reform. Undocumented immigrants would be given “probationary legal status” and remain ineligible for citizenship or a green card until that certification is made.

The bipartisan group is led by Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American legislator from Miami, who has spoken on the need for immigration reform for years.

What will Obama propose today?

The White House has sent indications it approves of the bipartisan group’s proposal, but its previous blueprints for immigration reform were more liberal. Obama will likely propose a more direct path to citizenship that skips “probationary legal status” on the belief that the Senate proposal creates an uncertain legal grey area for persons in the program. He will also likely skip the border security certification phase and include language supporting the view that same-sex bi-national couples should have the same rights as heterosexual couples.

What do Democrats get?

Democrats will be able to claim leadership on immigration reform and play off accusations that they are weak on border security. The much-coveted path to citizenship will become a reality, with the caveat that undocumented immigrants will need to get background checks, pay federal back taxes and a fine, as well as learn the English language and civics.

Those 11 million potential citizens? Most of them will vote for Democrats.

What do Republicans get?

Republicans get a guarantee that the federal government will be required to certify the border is secure, as well as loosen their image. The xenophobic wing of the Tea Party will likely look foolish to the country in any debates or hearings (though not necessarily to their constituents), weakening anti-establishment Republicans on the national stage. Many moderate Republicans will get a shot at trying to capture Latino votes with a message of free enterprise and the American Dream, though it remains doubtful that they can beat the Democratic Party on that front.

What do Latinos get?

They’ll get to live legally in the United States, and will be granted the desired path to citizenship. Border security certification and bipartisan reform on immigration will likely neutralize some of the more conservative laws either in place or being proposed in many southwestern states – such as Arizona’s SB 1070, which authorized law enforcement officers to check immigration status during routine stops. That law was widely seen among Latinos as racial profiling.

Likely, it will also mean that undocumented immigrants will be given a leg up in the job market – without the threat of exposure and deportation, fewer employers will be able to offer exploitative sub-minimum-wage jobs to immigrants.

A more flexible immigration system will also benefit the millions of Latinos who currently reside legally in the United States, by removing the constant stress of immigration enforcement against their communities and families.

Is there a catch?

There is no catch. However, there are concerns regarding the new proposal’s implementation.

Immigration controls – in particular, security benchmarks – will be designed by southwestern border state officials, which could result in unfavorable conditions for the Latino community.

It is currently unclear whether the bipartisan proposal will increase the number of green cards (which allow the holder to live freely in the US and be employed) in circulation; if not, the bill would generate an even greater backlog in the immigration system.

There is no guarantee that either measure will become law. House Republicans in particular tend to treat proposals from the White House as anathema; regardless of whether the Senate reaches an agreement, GOP representatives in the lower chamber may vote to block the legislation on both ideological grounds (accusations of amnesty) or political ones (defeating the president).

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