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Immigration bill at a crossroads

12:18 PM, May 9, 2013   |    comments
Credit: AP/file.
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Alan Gomez, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON - The Senate on Thursday began considering more than 300 amendments filed on a sweeping immigration plan introduced by a bipartisan group of senators known as the Gang of Eight.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will vote on the amendments over the course of several hearings, and those changes will decide whether the bill can satisfy the full Senate, a skeptical House of Representatives and President Obama's administration. Here is a look at five issues that could disrupt the momentum of the bill:

Same-Sex Immigration Rights
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., filed amendments to extend immigration rights and benefits to the spouses and families of LGBT couples who are in a "long-term committed relationship." Immigration activists lobbied the Gang of Eight to include such provisions in their bill, but members held off. And while the idea has support from Democrats on the Judiciary committee, Republicans have warned that including the topic on an already-controversial bill could ruin any chances it has at clearing both chambers. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has said simply that adding LGBT immigration rights would "kill the bill."

Border Security Enhancements
Many Republicans say the bill doesn't do enough to fully secure the country's border. The last time Congress passed a comprehensive immigration bill in 1986, up to 3 million unauthorized immigrants were allowed to apply to become U.S. citizens. But the promise of border security didn't happen, leading to another wave of illegal immigration and more than 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the country today. Republican senators, including Rep. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, have filed several amendments to require the border be certified as secure before people can get green cards and U.S. citizenship. Democrats believe the 13-year path to citizenship is already long enough and worry about putting many more barriers in front of them.

Easier Path to Citizenship
Most of the nation's 11 million unauthorized immigrants who arrived in the U.S. before Dec. 31, 2011, would be able to apply for a green card within 10 years, and U.S. citizenship within 13 years, after they have passed criminal background checks, paid taxes, learned English and civics and paid at least $2,000 in fees. But immigration activist groups, and some Democrats, feel that's too difficult a process. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., filed an amendment to move that cutoff date back to April 17, 2013, so recent arrivals aren't left out, and another one to allow young unauthorized immigrants to get a faster path. Adoption of those amendments could rankle Republicans and undermine the bill.

Who Can Benefit
The current Senate bill allows most of the nation's 11 million unauthorized immigrants to apply for temporary legal status and, eventually, full U.S. citizenship. But some Republicans, including Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., are trying to amend the bill to place some limits. Sessions, for example, has filed an amendment to bar anybody who could qualify for Medicare, Obamacare and other welfare programs from qualifying to get their green card. If the amendments prevent too many people from getting legal status, the bill could quickly lose the support of activist groups, Democrats in Congress and the Obama administration.

Workers vs. Relatives
Many of the lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have filed amendments to change the focus of the nation's future legal immigration system. Some lawmakers, such as Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, want to make it easier for companies to hire foreign, high-skilled workers. The bill already increases the number of visas and green cards granted to people with advanced degrees, but Hatch and others believe it places too many barriers in front of U.S. businesses. Adding such provisions could upset some Republicans who are worried the bill already puts U.S. workers in jeopardy. The shift away from a family-based immigration system also worries some in Congress. Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, filed an amendment to allow U.S. citizens the ability to petition for their siblings - a part of U.S. immigration law that is repealed by the Gang of Eight bill.

USA TODAY

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