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Breaking Down Senate's Immigration Overhaul Bill


This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, we'll check in with the Barbershop guys to hear what they have to say about all the news of the week.

But, first, it's only because of the kind of week that we've had that it would be possible that a major issue like the one we're about to talk about could actually fly under the radar. It was introduced by a group called the Gang of Eight, a bipartisan group who also had the support of a very wide array of interest groups that often do not agree on much of anything.

We are talking about the bipartisan immigration reform bill and here to help us wrap our heads around it is Sonia Ansari. She's an immigration lawyer in Austin, Texas. Also with us is Matt Barreto from Latino Decisions. That's a group that polls around the political opinions of Latinos around the country.

Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.

SONIA ANSARI: Thank you for having me.

MATT BARRETO: Sure thing.

MARTIN: So, Sonia, just by glancing at the bill, can you tell us - we can tell that there is a big emphasis on employment-based visas. Can you tell us a little bit about how this is different from the way immigration law currently works?

ANSARI: Sure. Well, right now, the number of family-based - or the percentage of family-based visas that are issued in the United States are roughly - 75 percent of the visas go to people who have family ties to the United States. Under the new system, it's going to be more a 50-50 split where 50 percent of the visas will go to people with employment ties in the United States and probably 50 percent with family ties.

There's a greater emphasis on education and merit in the new system and so there's going to be more people probably coming in from India and China who have really advanced degrees in science, mathematics, engineering, those kinds of - with those kind of backgrounds.

MARTIN: How would this affect - how might this bill affect immigrants who are already in the U.S. without proper authorization?

ANSARI: Well, it has a legalization program in it and so what would happen is, six months after the bill is enacted, if the Department of Homeland Security comes up with a strategy for securing the border, that's one of the triggers for people to get legal immigration status in the United States, so if the department is able to come up with a border security program, undocumented immigrants who arrived before December 31st, 2011 - if they can show that they haven't committed a felony or three misdemeanors and that they have a job, they pay a $500 fine to show that they're caught up on their taxes. They'll be able to apply for what's called Registered Provisional Immigrant status and that's going to be valid for six years.

After six years, they can apply to renew the status if they've maintained a steady work history and if they have a clean criminal record. At that point, they'll be required to pay another $500 fine and, after 10 years, they'll be allowed to apply for permanent residency if they can show that they've maintained a constant work history, a constant presence in the United States, are caught up on their taxes, they have a clean criminal record and they have a knowledge of English and civics. And they'll have to pay another $1,000 fine.

So the basics are - the path to citizenship will take a total of 13 years and require a total of $2,000 in fines for each undocumented immigrant in order for them to become U.S. citizens.

MARTIN: Well, I want to hear more about what you think about this, Sonia, but I'm going to turn to Matt and ask him what his reaction is to this. And what are the reactions of people you've been polling?

BARRETO: Yeah. Well, I think that Sonia's laid out that it is a very arduous and long path to citizenship. We've been throwing around this phrase, the path to citizenship, and now we finally see what it looks like.

In our most recent poll, we did a poll of undocumented immigrants, so actually polling the folks who are going to be affected by this and, in that poll, we found that Latino undocumented immigrants were quite optimistic. They're very hopeful for immigration reform to pass right now. They're paying very close attention and, when asked if they would apply to the path to citizenship, without giving them all the full details of the bill, of course, because that was just released, we found that 87 percent - almost 90 percent - of undocumented immigrants said yes. This is something that they aspire to do and that they want to go through the process.

And now, what we're going to assess is just how arduous that process is and how many of them will, in fact, be able to get through that process over the next 13 years.

MARTIN: Matt, many people are familiar with the phrase, give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses. You know, yearning to be free. To frame this, given all the details that Sonia's laid out, this is a massive bill, so I just want to be clear that there is a lot to learn about this and this is also subject to further negotiation. But, as the bill stands now, does this change that understanding of what immigration is for, our priority in immigration in the United States?

BARRETO: You know, I think it does. I think that this is a bit of a shift away from these ideas of family reunification, which this bill deemphasizes going to these skill-based visas. But one of the things we have to remember is that this is still an opportunity for those undocumented immigrants who are here in the United States to adjust their status, to gain legal status and to eventually gain the path to citizenship.

So, while I still have many questions and even criticisms about the bill, I do think that it is a hopeful starting point and I hope that, in those further negotiations that you mentioned, that we'll be able to come up with a bit smarter provision so that we can more successfully incorporate the undocumented immigrants who are here who, as we found, are very integrated into the fabric of...

MARTIN: Well, what do you mean by not smart? What's not smart about it? I mean...

BARRETO: Well, I think, if you create a path to citizenship - let's say you have these 11 million undocumented immigrants. If you create that path that is so difficult to traverse, you're not going to incorporate them and so there are hurdles that might be place, whether it's the hurdles on the immigrants themselves in terms of how long the wait is, what they need to do, how much they have to pay. Are they going to need to involve lawyers to help straighten out the paperwork and get their job history? Is there this border trigger? Does Jan Brewer get involved?

If the process is too difficult, you are not going to ultimately end up incorporating these 11 million folks mostly on the sidelines.

MARTIN: Oh, all right.

BARRETO: We have to find something that's smart that works.

MARTIN: Sonia, I'm sorry. Can we ask you your opinion of that as a person who's immersed in this, one of those lawyers that Matt was talking about who - you're immersed in the system. What are you and your colleagues talking about?

ANSARI: Well, it definitely is going to lead to a less diverse immigrant population that's coming into the United States. You know, you were talking about how, historically, we've welcomed the, you know, people from all over the world. But one of the things that the new immigration bill does is it eliminates the diversity immigrant visa program and that program grants about 55,000 green cards each year to immigrants who come from countries that have historically low rates of immigration to the United States. It really benefits people coming from African countries. About 50 percent of those visas are from people coming from African countries.

And so, with that cut, we're no longer going to have, you know, the geographic equity that's currently built into our immigration system.

MARTIN: Well, but that's a philosophical issue, isn't it? That's an ideological issue, is it not? I mean, does that speak to the whole question of whether the mechanism that's laid - whether that's desirable or not, just as the question of...

ANSARI: Right.

MARTIN: ...the eliminating the family-based visas for the siblings of U.S. citizens. I understand that there is a lot of discussion, you know, around that. So let's just take those separately. I mean, administratively, do you think that - do you share Matt's concern that, actually, this is still so hard that it still leaves a lot of people out of status and that they're still not regularized? It still doesn't really offer the path to citizenship because, even though it does on paper, it's still going to be so hard to actually do that a lot of people won't be able to do it. Do you share that concern?

ANSARI: Yes. I think so. I mean, there are substantial fines required that the undocumented population is going to have to pay. And, also, you know, the whole legalization program is subject to three triggers, which I think it's really unfair to shackle, you know, the path to citizenship to these factors that the undocumented population can not control, which is whether the border strategy outlined by the Department of Homeland Security is going to be operational or what's going to be substantially completed, whether employers are going to be - you know, fall under the E-Verify system and whether there's an electronic exit system created.

The whole program is predicated on those triggers being met and so, if those aren't met, the legalization program, you know, falls apart.

MARTIN: Matt, can I ask you again to talk a little bit more about kind of the philosophical question at issue here, which is, you know, every country defines its borders and most countries do have some sort of value system or understanding of who they want to be within those borders if they're not born there. OK?

So what I'm hearing you saying is this is a shift toward people who bring certain skills at a certain level of education away from family ties. I mean, I think there are some Americans who will hear that and think that's absolutely right and there are some Americans who will hear that and think that, actually, those family ties are the way that immigrants succeed in this country. So, if you're eliminating the ability to bring more family members with you, you're undermining the opportunity for success.

Do you have any sense of how most Americans feel about this?

BARRETO: Yeah. No. I mean, that's a good question and I think, you know, the history of immigration to the United States has been predicated on the idea of the American dream, that you can come to this country, work hard. Maybe you don't come to this country with an advanced master's degree and a bank account, but that you come to this country to work hard, contribute, have new ideas and a lot of sweat equity and that's what has made this country great over the years.

And that's not to say that we don't also want some high skilled, high educated immigrants for certain types of visas, but I think this bill starts to pit those two against each other because it does greatly reduce the number of lower skilled visas and also, as we said, the family reunification.

And so it is a discussion that Americans should be having and I think, if you talk to most Americans, they'll tell you that that history of immigration has been that integrated into the American dream.

MARTIN: Well...

BARRETO: Coming here and that idea of hard work and that anyone can achieve something special if they work hard.

MARTIN: But it is also true that we are in an environment where people have some very intense feelings about a very expansionist immigration policy. Some people feel the country can no longer afford it. It is no longer in the best interests of the United States.

I wanted to ask if, philosophically, knowing what you know about public opinion, does this bill address these very different philosophical perspectives that Americans, you know, have right now? The senators who put it forth, the Gang of Eight, seem to believe that it does and a lot of the interest groups believe that it does, even though they don't love every aspect of the bill. Knowing what you know about public opinion, does it reconcile those very different competing philosophies or not?

BARRETO: Well, I think that's - I think you're exactly right, Michel. That's why it is such a compromise bill. It has a little bit of everything in it. It has a lot of border security. It has a lot of shifting emphasis on the legal immigration system in the visas we've been talking about. And then it does provide this path to citizenship, even though we said it is quite arduous. It does provide a path to citizenship and, when you pull the language on the bill that seems to have introduced, the last couple of national polls (unintelligible) have all suggested that, while almost 60 percent - and, in fact, close to 70 percent of Americans agree with this approach, that agree that there should be some border security, but there should also be a path to citizenship for the undocumented immigrants, we find in our polls of Latino voters that Latino voters are very supportive, especially on the path to citizenship. They might have some questions about some of the border security mechanisms and whether or not there should be triggers...


BARRETO: ...in some areas. But it is something that the American people support. I think the Gang of Eight...


BARRETO: You know, to give them credit, they really brought together a compromise bill here.

MARTIN: We're going to have to let you go, Matt. Your line is deteriorating. So thank you so much for joining us. That was Matt Barreto from Latino Decisions. That's a polling firm. He joined us from St. Louis, Missouri. Also joining us, Sonia Ansari. She is an immigration lawyer and she was kind enough to join us from Austin, Texas.

I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

ANSARI: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.