WASHINGTON The massive legislative overhaul of the nation's immigration laws that's expected to be unveiled in the Senate today may represent a bipartisan breakthrough for the "gang of eight," but it's just the beginning of a long slog.
Huge obstacles remain to passing a sweeping bill that would provide a 13-year path to citizenship for many of the 11 million immigrants who are in the United States illegally.
Even with backing from business groups and a promise to secure the borders, it will be difficult to get enough Senate Republicans on board to pass the bill.
Even if the bill does get through the Senate, its prospects in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives appear dim at best, because there may be enough Republicans like Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, who views the Senate measure as nothing more than an amnesty bill.
"The Senate's immigration proposal contains a fatal flaw," Smith said Monday on the House floor. "It legalizes almost everyone in the country illegally amnesty before it secures the border. As a result, the Senate proposal issues an open invitation to enter the country illegally. Millions more will do so before the border is secure."
Speculation that the bill was in trouble even before its introduction raced through Capitol Hill on Monday after Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., announced that he was shifting a hearing on the measure from Wednesday to Friday.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a gang of eight member and tea party favorite who is viewed as the key to garnering Republican and conservative support for the bill, said the hearing delay was to give lawmakers more time to read the bill.
"This extra time will give the American people and their senators a chance to better prepare for this first major opportunity to ask questions about the bill," Rubio said in a statement.
The proposed immigration revamp tackles many elements of what lures immigrants to the United States: employment. Industry officials who have been briefed on the legislation expect it to expand the H-1B program for highly skilled workers significantly, raise caps to make it easier for the agriculture sector to hire farm workers, and create an entirely new program for the service-oriented jobs that are a huge lure for low-skilled workers.
That latter program, however, is likely to be capped at 200,000 visas, phased in over 10 years, a small number given that this population is what makes up the bulk of workers without documentation today.
Employers have had few consequences for hiring those workers, and the legislation would, over a five-year phase-in, require that all employers participate in the E-Verify program. In essence, employers large and small would have to verify the immigration status of all their workers. The E-Verify program is voluntary today, with fewer than a dozen states requiring it for companies that are contracting for state business.
Some members of the all-Democratic Congressional Black Caucus have indicated that they may balk at the bill if it fails to sufficiently address their concerns about the H-1B visas and a lottery-driven diversity visa program that the House voted to eliminate in November in order to expand the H-1B program.
Since then, black caucus officials have been talking with Senate leaders and gang of eight members in hopes of stemming the House action, which they say would adversely affect immigration of lesser-skilled people from African and Caribbean nations.
White House officials say they're comfortable that the legislation's 13-year path to citizenship is consistent with President Barack Obama's plan for immigration restructuring.
Rubio, a possible 2016 presidential candidate, blitzed the Sunday talk shows to explain why he's helping to lead the initiative to overhaul immigration laws.
Saying that "we're not rewarding anything," Rubio added, "I just hope that I can convince people that leaving things the way they are now is much worse than approaching it the way we've outlined."
Anti-immigration groups were skeptical. The Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington advocacy organization, released a report Monday that it said documented weak border controls going back to 2004.