Senate Democrats blasted Arizona’s “wronghearted” new immigration law as they unveiled a plan to give the nation’s 11 million undocumented workers a long, winding path to citizenship.
Lawmakers said the southwestern border state’s crackdown grew out of frustration that Washington has not fixed US immigration policy, causing a glut of undocumented immigrants but leaving a shortage of workers in key areas.
That flawed policy “has plagued our country for too long,” said Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who urged Republicans to “work with us to fix this broken system.”
The blueprint, which won immediate White House backing and swift Republican condemnation, calls for securing US borders first, and attracting temporary workers and high-skill legal immigrants, like aspiring doctors or scientists.
It would create a high-tech, national identity card to prove legal work status and punish US employers with stiff fines and, for repeat offenders, jail time, if they knowingly employ illegal workers.
And it would map a path for qualified undocumented workers, after an eight-year wait, to gain permanent, legal resident status — a critical stepping stone towards becoming a naturalized US citizen.
They would first have to register with the government, pay taxes and perhaps fines, pass an English-language proficiency and a criminal background check, and wait behind current applications for legal residency.
“Our framework is fix the border first, but don’t just fix the border,” said Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer, who stressed that “no matter what we do on the border” US jobs will draw undocumented immigrants.
The announcement came as Arizona’s crackdown, which critics say enshrines racial profiling, faced threats of court challenges and the state confronted a national campaign to boycott its exports and tourism industry.
That new law allows police to question and detain anyone they believe may be in the United States illegally, even if they are not suspected of committing another crime.
It also requires anyone in the state suspected of being an undocumented immigrant to show a document proving their legal status, like a “green card” permanent residency document or a passport.
“The fact that we do not have a good strong federal immigration law has now engendered a disproportional and counterproductive response in Arizona, which has passed a new law that is both ineffective and wronghearted,” said Schumer.
Few analysts predict Congress will pass an overhaul ahead of November mid-term elections, with US unemployment near 10 percent, and anger at an estimated 10.8 million undocumented immigrants in a nation of about 309 million people.
But Hispanic voters — one of the fastest-growing segments of the electorate — have flexed their political muscle of behalf of an undocumented population that chiefly hails from Latin America.
Reid, who faces an uphill reelection fight and has courted Hispanics in his home state of Nevada, did not repeat a previous promise to pass a comprehensive immigration overhaul through the Senate this year.
And any proposal would need Republican support to clear the US Senate, a tall order in Washington’s superheated partisan political climate after Republican Senator Lindsey Graham withdrew from talks with Schumer.
Graham and Republican Senator Jon Kyl condemned the Democratic proposal as “nothing more than an attempt to score political points” and warned it “poisons the well” for future bipartisan immigration overhaul proposals.
President Barack Obama welcomed the plan and stressed: “We can no longer wait to fix our broken immigration system, which Democrats and Republicans alike agree doesn’t work.”
The new Democratic plan calls for recruiting “thousands” of new customs agents and the creation of a new force to help the US Border Patrol, which has some 20,000 in its ranks.
It also calls for new points of entry in the roughly 3,200-kilometer (2,000-mile) border, with nearly one-third of the frontier now fenced.
The blueprint urges an overhaul of the temporary work visa process, making it easier for foreign graduates of US universities with a firm employment offer in the United States.