An immigration bill being written in the Senate aims to wipe out nearly all illegal crossings along the southwestern border with Mexico while maintaining a 13-year timetable for existing illegal residents to win citizenship, sources said on Wednesday.
The carefully crafted language is intended to attract Republican support in Congress for comprehensive immigration legislation this year, while accommodating Democrats' desire to help the estimated 11 million foreigners living in the United States illegally.
The idea is to create tough law-and-order provisions that backers could argue would finally fix a porous U.S. border, as well as keeping foreigners who have obtained visas from overstaying them.
A bipartisan group of eight Democratic and Republican senators writing the bill is hoping to sign off on the measure in coming days.
Under the tentative deal worked out by the group, the Department of Homeland Security would be tasked with developing plans to stop nearly all illegal border crossings, two sources familiar with the plan said.
Border security would be linked to the path to citizenship and the standards would be set by Congress.
Once DES submitted the plan, the government would be allowed to start providing initial provisional legal status to the illegal immigrants who qualify, one source said.
The agency would be given $3 billion to immediately implement the plan, according to one Senate aide familiar with the legislation.
The two sources, who asked not to be identified, said the DHS border plan would have a goal of stopping 90 percent of illegal border crossings at "high risk" areas.
If the agency failed to meet the goal in any of the first five years after the immigration law was enacted, a newly created commission would come up with additional steps to stop visa overstays and illegal border crossings, the sources said.
The federal government would dedicate another $2 billion to achieve these security steps, the Senate aide said.
In addition, $1.5 billion in new funding would be dedicated to additional border fence construction, making for a total of $6.5 billion in new security spending.
In order for the 11 million illegal immigrants to transition from the provisional legal status to permanent residency, a number of other requirements would have to be met, including more fencing on the border and a mandatory employment verification system known as e-verify.
The Senate aide familiar with the legislation said if the 90 percent goal is unfulfilled after 10 years, undocumented residents who qualify would still be allowed to apply for "green cards," the open-ended visas that are widely seen as the gateway to U.S. citizenship for foreigners.
But other requirements could slow the path to citizenship.
COURTING HISPANIC LAWMAKERS
The four Democratic senators in the bipartisan group - Charles Schumer of New York, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado - huddled with Hispanic members of Congress to update them on the plan, which could be considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee this month.
Upon leaving that meeting in the Capitol, Durbin told reporters: "We are closer now than we have been in 25 years for serious immigration reform."
Durbin said the Hispanic members of the House of Representatives were told that while legislation was still being crafted in secret, "We need to have your approval" before moving forward with any bill.
While failure to achieve the 90 percent success rate in stopping illegal border crossings would not delay citizenship for undocumented residents, other provisions could.
According to the Senate aide, before any of the 11 million could be granted citizenship, a backlog of 4 million people awaiting legal immigration would have to be cleared; Washington would have to complete implementation of an "entry-exit system created after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks to track foreigners from certain countries; and the e-verify electronic system to help businesses determine workers' eligibility for employment would have to be in place.
Meanwhile, Schumer told reporters negotiations continued on another controversial portion of immigration reform: the future flow of foreign farm workers into the United States and the pay for such temporary workers.
"We're making very, very good and quick progress," Schumer said, adding that he hoped an immigration bill could be debated by the full Senate in late May.
One proposal under consideration would set a ceiling of 200,000 visas for temporary farmworkers during the first five years of the immigration law, according to officials familiar with the negotiations. This would be on top of the current 50,000-70,000 farm worker visas currently allowed.
After 2020, the U.S. Department of Agriculture would set the ceiling, sources said.
In the meantime, business groups ramped up their calls on Congress to enact an immigration bill promptly.
Motorola Solutions Inc. CEO Greg Brown, rebutting some conservatives' contention that the legislation would seriously hurt the U.S. economy, told reporters that it actually would be a stimulus because foreigners would be allowed to come to the United States to work and would contribute to the economy.
While Brown expressed support for allowing illegal immigrants to earn some kind of legal status, he did not specifically endorse a pathway to citizenship for them, saying he was open to discussing the idea. (Additional reporting by Charles Abbott. Editing by Fred Barbash)