Bipartisan senators working on a broad immigration overhaul are nearing agreement on a process for the roughly 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the United States to legalize their status and possibly achieve citizenship. While aides caution that details are still being worked out, and nothing is final until the language is drafted by staff and members sign off, the broad framework for legalization is becoming clear.
A senior congressional aide with knowledge of the details says illegal immigrants wanting a work permit that would legalize their status would first have to come forward, register with the government and pass a criminal background check. While they would pay a processing fee of around $500, it's possible they would not have to pay a fine until they renew their work permit after several years. That fine would be at least $1,000.
Likely after 10 years, the immigrant would be eligible to apply for a green card if they would like. Negotiators are still discussing whether there would be a fine at this stage. If the immigrant receives that green card, they would then be eligible to apply for citizenship.
The senior aide says that those applying for citizenship would have to show they've learned English and United States civics. They would also go to the very back of the line so that people who've applied for citizenship, but never broken the law, get the first opportunity to become citizens.
At each stage, the immigrant would have to show that they've been working continuously while in the United States and pass criminal background checks. They would also need to prove that they've been in the United States for at least a couple years before the law passed to prevent immigrants from trying to enter the country illegally now or after the bill passes.
Talks gained momentum over the weekend when an agreement in principle was reached with labor and business leaders on a new visa program for low-skilled immigrants.
The new visa, known as a "W Visa Program", would allow employers to petition for visas for lower-skilled foreign workers in industries like construction, retail or hospitality. In the future, as many as 200,000 visas could be issued a year, but the number would be determined by a combination of factors including the unemployment rate and the ratio of job openings to job seekers.
The issue was considered one of the last major sticking points though Republicans in the "gang" like Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., whose support of the package will be critical to winning over conservatives, publicly said reports of a deal are "premature."
Negotiators are expected to unveil the legislation next week, but it will not be the final package. The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to consider the bill and amend it this month. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said on NBC's "Meet the Press" yesterday that the bill could be on the Senate floor as early as May.
Meanwhile a bipartisan group of eight House members are working on an immigration plan as well. Aides with knowledge of the talks say they expect to unveil their plan in the coming weeks.
But the fate after the unveiling is unclear. The bill could go through the House Judiciary Committee, but members have no guarantee yet from GOP leadership or the chairman of that committee on the way forward.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said last month, however, that "there are a lot of issues in here that have to be dealt with" but he thinks the package House lawmakers are crafting "is frankly a pretty responsible solution."