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Is Immigration Overhaul On America's Doorstep?


It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Coming up, the death of a man who could be the most influential pastor you've never heard of. But first, in Spanish, the words el camino means the road, but it can also mean the way. El camino rios, the way to the river. El camino de dias, a religious path.

And for millions, certainly the path to immigration overhaul in the U.S. has been elusive and full of fervor. Witness a rally this past week at the Capitol.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Foreign language spoken)

LYDEN: But in a couple days, a bipartisan group of senators who refer to themselves as the Gang of Eight will unveil those elusive elements of the path. That's our cover story today: immigration reform, rights, demands, questions.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Familia. Bienvenidos. Welcome to Washington.

LYDEN: Here, the landmarks are wreathed in cherry blossoms, and they never looked more lovely. The Lagunas(ph) family made the trip from New York City for the rally and made sure to leave enough time to appreciate the monuments.

JESSICA LAGUNAS: It's our first time to see the Capitol. What I really wanted to see was the White House. I didn't get to see it yet.

LUIS LAGUNAS: Yeah. First time here. And I love it. I love it. I love it. I worked all night last night, and I come straight to here.

LYDEN: Fourteen-year-old Jessica Lagunas is a U.S. citizen, but her father, Luis, a cook, is undocumented, and so are her brother and mother who came here from Mexico.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I really don't care if they're like documented or not documented - it's actually as long as I love them.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #3: (Foreign language spoken)

LYDEN: Yes, we can, came the chant. Twenty-six-year-old Claudia Guzman(ph) believes that. She remembers the uncertainty of her own childhood and how different it feels now to have legal status.

CLAUDIA GUZMAN: My mom came here illegally and brought us here. And now, we're fine. But I think everybody else deserves the same right that we have.

LYDEN: They came here from Mexico.

GUZMAN: It was very difficult, you know, going to school, trying to get into college and everything. Sometimes when you don't have legal papers, the doors kind of close on you.

LYDEN: Immigration reform has confronted and confounded presidents and policymakers for decades - Presidents Reagan, George W. Bush, Obama. The 11 million people living here now without legal status aren't going anywhere, Claudia Guzman says, so Congress may as well act.

GUZMAN: I hope that they'll pass the law. I mean, the people will be here regardless of anything and might as well legalize them, you know, have them make a better future for themselves, for their families.

LYDEN: And it appears that most Americans now agree with that view. Two-thirds favor eventually granting citizenship to immigrants working in the country illegally, according to a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. A slim majority of Republicans oppose this path. Although when they hear that legalization would involve paying fines, back taxes and a background check, Republican support rises to nearly three quarters. That is renewed hope for reform.

SENATOR ROBERT MENENDEZ: They recognize that the only way you can secure the country is knowing who is here to pursue the American dream versus who might be here to do it harm.

LYDEN: Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, is one of the architects of the bipartisan proposal.

MENENDEZ: The only way you ensure that you don't put downward pressures on wages for all Americans is to not allow a underclass to exist that you can exploit.

LYDEN: Senator Menendez laid out the outlines of the proposal. The full plan's expected to be introduced Tuesday.

MENENDEZ: It will say to all who are in the country, who are undocumented, you have a chance, but that chance depends upon you coming forth, registering with the government, going through a criminal background check, passing that background check and beginning a pathway that may be somewhat long but ultimately leads to the opportunity to earn your citizenship in this country.

It is an agreement that has, from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to the AFL-CIO, an agreement about what type of future workers might be allowed into the country. It's an agreement that looks and says to all of those who have a visa waiting and approved under the legal system that you will have a - finally an opportunity to have that visa be realized before anybody who's undocumented can move forward towards permanent residency.

It's a legislation that will include provisions on dreamers, young people who through no fault of their own ended up in America and the only flag they pledge allegiance to is that of the United States. And we will give them a pathway, a little more expedited pathway than the others towards their opportunity for permanent residency.

LYDEN: I asked Senator Menendez about reports that people who came to the country after the end of 2011 will be barred from applying for legal status.

MENENDEZ: Well, there has to be a cutoff point. And obviously, that cutoff was negotiated also as it relates to a whole host of other very important issues that probably enlarge the universe of who has access to the process for legalization versus what the cutoff date is.

LYDEN: One of the big questions about legalizing 11 million people is what will the economic impact be, the effect on taxes and wages, and whether or not this will be a help or hindrance on economic momentum.

I asked Ted Robbins, NPR's border security correspondent, who's been looking into this, what the likely scenario might be.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: Presuming that most of them came for jobs, they're already working. So they would keep their jobs and they would pay income taxes under their own names as opposed to using, for instance, fraudulent Social Security numbers. That could mean more revenue for the government. Employers, especially in service industries like hotels and restaurants, would be able to hire workers legally instead of under the table. In agriculture, that happens a lot. Wages would likely go up some to at least minimum wage in low-skilled jobs, which are being filled by underpaid workers now.

It could make it easier for U.S.-born workers to compete because the incentive that, you know, employers have to take advantage of foreign workers would disappear. But on the other hand, they'd be in direct competition with the newly legalized. It would cost the government. Newly legalized people would be eligible for some government benefits. The overall net result, Jacki, is really debatable.

LYDEN: What, of course, has been in the news a lot is that border security is going to be a big part of this legalization. Have you looked at that?

ROBBINS: Yeah. So let's remember, the 11 million people now in the country illegally would get temporary legal status, and that would last like up to a decade by most of the proposals. Every single reform bill scenario says the southern border has to be more secure before they would get permanent legal status or a green card, and then that would be a path to citizenship. The problem is that nobody's been able to come up with a definition of a secure border.

There have been some leaks that DHS would have to prove that 90 percent of those entering illegally in some places are being caught. That is a really high bar. And how would you prove it? DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano likes to point out that apprehensions along the southern border are now at 40-year lows. And security, no doubt, is part of that, along with a weak job market in the U.S.

So that brings us to an interesting question, which is, you know, what is the likelihood that we would see a lot of people trying to cross again, another big wave of illegal immigration? Mexico has changed a lot. The birth rate there is half what it was 15 years ago, and the economy there is growing. So there'd be fewer people to cross and presumably less incentive.

LYDEN: NPR's Ted Robbins.

Back in 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Immigration Reform and Control Act. In effect it granted amnesty, a term that's become loaded, to an estimated three million people who came to the country before 1982.

Amnesty is something the Tea Party has vociferously opposed. Senator Rand Paul, a Tea Party favorite, has made it clear that while he favors immigration reform, it should not include a new path to citizenship. I caught up with the Republican from Kentucky while he was traveling in the western part of the state.

SENATOR RAND PAUL: So what I would do is I'd get people work visas and get them into society, get them out of the shadows. And then if ultimately they want to be a citizen, they get in the same line everybody else gets in. I think it needs to be no new pathway.

LYDEN: Senator Paul is adamant that a robust border security plan is essential to any reform.

PAUL: So what I'm offering is an amendment that I will try to place on the immigration reform that the Gang of Eight proposes. And this amendment will be called trust but verify. And it will say that we have to meet certain criteria to say the border is secure. But that report that says we're meeting or not meeting it will have to be voted on by Congress.

LYDEN: And the senator adds that there are plenty of jobs that need workers, especially in agriculture and service work.

PAUL: So, you know, we have 65,000 people coming in to do farm work for us officially, but we have another million coming in unofficially. So there's a lot of jobs that can be and need to be filled, but we don't have a very good immigration system. So we need to fix that.

And for the people who are already here who may have overstayed, previous work visas, I think we should find work visas for them and let them come out of the shadows. And I think most of them are good people who want to work. Let's try to find a way to make them part of America.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #4: (Foreign language spoken)

LYDEN: People at the rally took the opportunity to address President Obama directly. For his part, President Obama has pledged to make immigration reform a priority of second term. And yet for all the seemingly concerted effort and tentative harmony in Washington, it would be wrong to presume that these proposals will face an easy time in Congress, especially in the Republican-led House.

But for the Lagunas, the New York family we heard from earlier at the rally for citizenship, change can't come soon enough. Here's the father, Luis Lagunas.

LAGUNAS: I wanted to come American citizen, you know, because a lot of people - what is the word?

LAGUNAS: Suffer.

LAGUNAS: Suffer, you know, because immigration all the time, there were a lot of the (unintelligible) in kids stay here, the father and mother is in Mexico. I want to ask to Obama if he can help us, you know, to give you like immigration (unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #5: (Foreign language spoken)

LYDEN: And that translates to: Obama, listen to us. We are in the fight.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #6: (Foreign language spoken) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.