Immigration debate begins

Louisiana’s two U.S. senators took opposite stances Tuesday as official debate began on the legislation to change the nation’s immigration policy.

Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., was among 84 senators who voted to begin formal consideration of the immigration bill. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., was among 15 voting not to consider the bill at all.

Landrieu said she is “leaning strongly” toward supporting the so-called “Gang of Eight” immigration bill. Vitter focused on pointing out loopholes and alleged weaknesses in the bill.

The plan involves cracking down on Mexican border security, offering a path to citizenship after more than 10 years and expanding guest worker programs in areas ranging from the sciences to agriculture. The federal government estimates there are 11 million people living in the country without legal permission.

Landrieu said she will wait until the potentially lengthy amendment process is complete before officially deciding whether she will support the legislation.

“The bill is in very good shape right now. I want to vote for it,” Landrieu said before Tuesday’s procedural votes. “It’s the right thing to add security to our borders and shut down illegal immigration and open up a path to citizenship after people pay their taxes, pay all back taxes, learn English and then become citizens.”

The Gang of Eight group of four Republicans and four Democrats has argued that a majority of both parties want to fix the nation’s “broken” immigration system.

But Vitter is helping lead GOP critics who contend that the nation must first focus separately on fixing border security problems before Congress should even consider “amnesty.” He is opposed to any “comprehensive approach” that he has repeatedly said is likely to repeat the problems of 1986 immigration legislation that resulted in a big “amnesty” bill with empty promises of border security.

“A bill with a $6.3 trillion price tag that completely walks away from border security is not ready for serious discussion or consideration,” Vitter said, quoting an amount calculated over decades by the conservative Heritage Foundation.

But U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., who is one of the Gang of Eight leaders, argued that the legislation invests another $6.5 billion in border security, including $1 billion in border fencing, more border agents and a new system of “sensors, radars and drones” to observe the entirety of the nation’s southern border.

“There’s a heck of a lot of border security in this bill,” Schumer said.

Top Republicans like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., made it clear though that moving to consideration of the bill does not mean the majority of the GOP supports it.

“I’ll vote to debate it and for the opportunity to amend it,” McConnell said Tuesday. “But in the days ahead, there will need to be major changes to this bill if it’s going to become law.”

“This bill is going to pass the Senate,” U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, added. “But, as written, this bill is not going to pass the House.”

A bipartisan group in the House is currently working on an immigration bill as well that could be filed as soon as late June.

The nearly 1,000-page bill would require the Department of Homeland Security to develop a border-security plan within six months that would allow for the use of automated drones, about 3,500 new Customs agents, additional border fencing and more manpower from the National Guard.

The legislation creates goals of 100 percent surveillance of the Mexican border and to catch or turn back 90 percent of those attempting to cross illegally. If those goals are not met in five years, then a Southern Border Security Commission would be formed to fix the remaining issues.

The plans must be in place before any illegal immigrants can receive green cards.

Once the border security plans are finalized, many of those living in the U.S. illegally can then obtain “registered provisional immigrant status” if they have lived in the country continuously since before 2012. They must pass criminal background checks to receive the status and pay a $500 fine. The status allows them to live and work legally in the country but without receiving federal benefits.

After 10 years in provisional status, immigrants can seek a green card and eventually apply for citizenship if they are up-to-date on their income taxes and pay a $1,000 fine. They also must meet work requirements and learn English. Those brought to the country as children would be able to get green cards in five years and citizenship immediately thereafter.

“That pathway is arduous,” President Barack Obama said Tuesday in support of the bill. “You’ve got to pass background checks. You’ve got to learn English. You’ve got to pay taxes and a penalty. And then you’ve got to go to the back of the line behind everybody who’s done things the right way and have tried to come here legally.”

“So this won’t be a quick process,” he continued. “It will take at least 13 years before the vast majority of these individuals are able to even apply for citizenship.”

Within five years, all employers also must implement the E-Verify program to electronically verify their workers’ legal status, according to the bill. As part of that, non-citizens will be required to show photo identification that must match with a photo in the E-Verify system.

The legislation also lifts the cap on available visas for high-skilled foreign workers and also creates a new agriculture worker visa program.