Hailing it as what may be the best shot at meaningful immigration reform in their political careers, Sen. Dick Durbin and Rep. Bill Foster Tuesday teamed up with local Aurora business and community leaders to trumpet a bill recently passed by the Senate. The group fears a piecemeal approach in the House may tear apart legislation meant to address many of the hot-button issues surrounding immigration reform.
Durbin said the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 is not the kind of legislation he would write.
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"It's a compromise," he said.
The bill, which Durbin crafted along with Republican Sens. John McCain and Marco Rubio, includes both enhanced border security and a legal path to citizenship for some of the nation's estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants. The bill would ultimately double the current number of border patrol agents to 40,000. That's enough to place an agent every 1,000 feet along the U.S. border with Mexico, Durbin said.
"Is it too much? In my opinion, yes," Durbin said. "But we had to have it for the other side."
The path to citizenship, which critics are decrying as amnesty for lawbreakers, would require all unauthorized immigrants to register with the federal government. After registration, each immigrant would undergo a criminal-background check and face deportation if criminal convictions are found. If their record is clean, then the immigrant can remain in the U.S., work and even travel to and from the country without the risk of deportation. The legally employed workers would pay taxes but get no Social Security credits for any work performed under a Social Security number that doesn't belong to them. They also would not qualify for any federal health benefits, such as Medicaid, for 10 years. Employers could still provide health care coverage but would be required to use the E-Verify system to validate an employee's immigration status.
"Will people cheat on it? Sure. That's the nature of life," Durbin said. "But we make it harder."
Failing workplace insurance coverage, the immigrants are expected to continue to rely on hospital emergency rooms for health care they can't pay for out of pocket.
The entire citizenship process would take 13 years from start to finish for unauthorized immigrants who go through the process. Individuals who arrived in the country before age 16 and have completed high school or earned a GED and want to go to college or serve in the military can apply for an expedited process that would still take five years.
"Those who argue that this is an amnesty, that we're letting them off the hook, this is not an easy road," Durbin said.
The same can be said of the bill's chances in the House. Foster, who has been an advocate for passing at least the parts of difficult legislation both major parties agree on, indicated that's not an option with immigration reform.
"The thing that has to be part of comprehensive immigration reform is a tough but fair path to citizenship," Foster said.
With an immigration vote not expected until the fall, Foster said the House can't get distracted from immigration reform by more votes on defunding Obamacare and fights about the debt ceiling.
"Every day they do nothing on this they are sending the message that their party does not care about immigrants and wishes they weren't here," Foster said.
Republican criticism of the bill has centered on the insurance hole for unauthorized immigrants, the message associated with any form of amnesty and ongoing concern about illegal border crossings that may still occur. But even one of Durbin's and Foster's invited guests at the event at Ginger Creek Community Church showed the bill may draw concerns even from people the bill is meant to assist.
A woman who identified herself only as "Maria" said she was a Northern Illinois University graduate and entered the country illegally. She said she fears at least two provisions in the bill.
She said the increased use of E-Verify will result in some people not being able to find work. And, the additional number of border patrol agents will create an added threat to people still trying to enter the U.S. for a better life.
"Let's be realistic," she said. "People are not going to stop trying to come here."
Despite those worries, she said she supports the overall legislation.
Reform: Criminal convictions will mean no path to citizenship