Your Guide to Obama’s and Senate’s Immigration Plans
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Josh Boak
The Fiscal Times
January 30, 2013

President Obama on Tuesday unveiled his proposals for overhauling the nation’s immigration laws and for the first time providing a pathway to citizenship for more than 11 million undocumented workers.

“Now’s the time to do this, so we can strengthen our nation’s economy and our future,” Obama said at a speech in Las Vegas. “We have an immigration system that’s out of date and badly broken, a system that’s holding us back.”

But a gang of eight senators seized the spotlight earlier this week by issuing their own framework for getting green cards for illegal immigrants. These proposals are conceptually similar, but there are numerous differences in how they tackle this divisive issue.

The economic impact of immigration reform for both undocumented workers and foreigners with advanced degrees from American universities are substantial.

Higher levels of immigration correspond with long-term growth in employment and wages for foreigners and native-born workers, according to a 2010 study by the University of California-Davis’ Giovanni Peri that was flagged by BusinessInsider. The last major amnesty program in 1986 awarded legal status to about three million immigrants, cutting their poverty rate in half and doubling their home ownership rate, according to a 2009 report by the Immigration Policy Center.

But conservatives claim that any amnesty program would reward individuals who broke the law and become a drain on government finances as welfare rolls skyrocket. A 2004 study by the Center for Immigration Studies estimates that illegal immigrants with access to food stamps, Medicaid, and other programs would cost the federal government $29 billion a year.

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While the eight senators championing reform are Republicans and Democrats, the prospects for any bill are much smaller in the Republican-majority House where many lawmakers worry that amnesty helps rule breakers at the expense of everyone else.

Here are the differences between what Obama has put forth and the one issued by the eight senators, among them Obama’s 2008 presidential rival Arizona Republican John McCain and Florida Republican Marco Rubio, a potential White House contender in 2016.

AMNESTY
Obama Plan -- Undocumented workers must clear criminal and national security background checks. Those who would pass would need to register with the government and pay fees and penalties in order to qualify for “provisional” legal residence. People with this status would not be eligible for welfare and other benefits.

Senate Plan – Follows along the same lines, stressing that the process would happen at the same time as the United States increases border control, except that agricultural workers would receive special treatment.

Sticking Point — Other than the senators’ willingness to consider agricultural workers in a distinct category, the basic action plan is the same. The main difference is rhetorical with the senators stressing how “tough” the process would be, whereas Obama highlights the importance of providing more certainty about immigrants’ status.

PATH TO CITIZENSHIP
Obama Plan
-- Before getting permanent residency, those with provisional status must wait for the government to wrap-up the existing legal immigration backlogs. Candidates for residency and citizenship would have to pay taxes, learn English and U.S. civics, among other requirements. Five years after receiving a green card, applicants could apply for citizenship.
 
Senate Plan — The path toward citizenship would only begin once border enforcement measures are “completed,” according to the framework released on Monday.

Sticking Point — Obama doesn’t make green cards dependent on a border security crackdown. The Senate plan does. It’s not entirely clear what the senators mean by “completed,” since the borders remain porous despite a dramatic surge in resources for customs and immigration officials since the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

HIGH-SKILLED IMMIGRANTS
Obama Plan
— Green cards will be “stapled” to the diplomas of immigrants who have received a PhD or master's degree in science, technology, engineering, or math from an American university. Employers will pay a fee to support educating American workers in the same field. Country caps on how many visas can be issued will be eliminated. Foreign entrepreneurs with U.S. investors qualify for visas.

Senate Plan — Supports green cards for those with advanced degrees, but no mention in the framework of an employer fee, the removal of country caps, or special visas for entrepreneurs.

Sticking Point —The Obama plan would dramatically widen visa access for educated immigrants, possibly opening the door for more immigrants from countries that currently face strict limitations.

BORDER SECURITY
Obama Plan -- “Smarter enforcement” that would give law enforcement officials more tools for stopping illicit border crossings and streamline the removal of individuals who pose a national security and public safety “threats.” The Department of Homeland Security would establish border community liaisons at the level.

Senate Plan -- Before issuing any green cards to undocumented workers, the government would impose stricter border enforcement measures. This means more agents and aerial drones, in addition to new rules ensuring immigrants have left the country if they’ve overstayed their visas.  The senators would establish a commission composed of governors and state attorneys general.

Sticking Point -- The Senate plan puts more emphasis on strengthening border security as the priority of reform than Obama does.

FAMILIES
Obama Plan -- The plan would rely on unused visas to eliminate the existing backlogs in the family-sponsored immigration system and allow same-sex partners to seek residency.

Senate Plan -- It acknowledges the need to wipe out the family backlog, but it contains no specifics nor a mention of same-sex families.

Sticking Point -- The immigration issue becomes part of the gay rights debate.

Washington Editor and D.C. Bureau Chief Eric Pianin is a veteran journalist who has covered the federal government, congressional budget and tax issues, and national politics. He spent over 25 years at The Washington Post.