Comprehensive immigration reform has a good chance of moving through the Congress and reaching the desk of President Obama by early fall, despite several attempts that failed in the last decade, Sen. Dick Durbin said Tuesday in Elgin.
Durbin outlined the provisions of the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act, approved May 21 by the Senate Judiciary Committee, to about 20 people gathered at the social service agency Centro de Informacion.
The bill will be on the Senate floor in two weeks, said Durbin, who is a member of the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" -- comprising four Republicans and four Democrats -- that came up with the comprehensive immigration reform proposal.
The 850-page bill would create a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants who live in the United States.
"The vast, vast majority are wonderful, hardworking people who just want a chance," Durbin said. "Forty percent of undocumented people in America today did not crawl across the desert -- they overstayed their visa."
The November election made it clear to Republicans they need to be realistic about immigration reform, Durbin said. Other groups like labor unions and Evangelicals also support it now, he said.
Durbin said he hopes the bill will be approved by the Senate by the end of June. He pointed to efforts by U.S. Rep. Luis Guiterrez (D-Illinois) to craft a similar bill in the House, which he hopes will approve immigration reform in August.
The Gang of Eight agreed on two nonnegotiable provisions -- the Republican demand to secure the U.S. border with Mexico, and the Democrats' demand to provide a path to citizenship, Durbin said.
Immigrants who are accepted into the program would be required to pay $2,000 in fees; those with felony convictions or more than three misdemeanor convictions would be ineligible, he said.
The bill establishes a new program to accommodate a certain number of low-skilled immigrant workers -- from roofers in Arizona to crab-shellers in Maryland -- provided the unemployment rate in that sector doesn't exceed 8.5 percent, Durbin said.
It also expands the number of visas available to high-skilled workers based on the economy's demands, he said.
"One in four of the high-tech companies (in the U.S.) were created by people born in foreign counties. That's the story of who we are. That's the story of where we go," he said.
Employers would be required to use the federal E-Verify system and pay fines if they hire undocumented workers, Durbin said.
The bill was based on a lot of compromise on both sides of the aisle, Durbin said, calling "heartbreaking" his decision not to support an amendment that would have included same-sex couples. Republicans made it clear the bill would have no future otherwise, but if the U.S. Supreme Court strikes down the Defense of Marriage Act, the point would be moot, he said.
The Elgin crowd included representatives from the city, school districts 300 and U-46, Elgin Community College, Judson University and Gail Borden Public Library.
Elgin Area School District U-46 Superintendent Jose Torres gave Durbin letters written by five undocumented students who received scholarships but don't qualify for federal aid for college.
Under the new immigration bill, Durbin said, students could do work-study programs and borrow money for student loans, which "will help some."
The Illinois AFL-CIO supports comprehensive immigration reform, said Bill Looby, the organization's policy director. The Elgin Central Labor Council recently passed a resolution to that effect, he said.
"They're like a second-class group of workers who are exploited, and it also erodes wages," he said. "It's about standing up for workers' rights."
Elgin Mayor David Kaptain asked what local leaders can do to facilitate the process if immigration reform moves forward.
"In communities particularly with large minorities, I would look to set up counseling services at libraries and schools so that people get good information, so they don't get misled," Durbin said.
Durbin: Bill creates citizenship path for undocumented immigrants