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Immigration Reform Gains Momentum In Congress


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish.

In the Senate today, a gun control bill overcame a filibuster that had been blocking its consideration. That major piece of legislation will likely occupy much of the Senate's time in the coming weeks. But hard on its heels is another big bill: a revamping of the rules on immigration. A bipartisan group of senators, known as the Gang of Eight, is crafting that bill which they expect to unveil in the next few days.

Joining me from the Capitol to talk about what to look for in the legislation is NPR congressional correspondent David Welna.

Hey there, David.


CORNISH: So, to start, how much is known about what's going to be in this immigration bill?

WELNA: Well, you know, what's known has really been the results of leaks and a lot of details remain to be fleshed out. But broadly speaking, this is a bill that addresses two big issues. One is the fact that there are some 11 million immigrants in the country who are not authorized to be here. And since they're here - many of them with jobs and families and not likely to leave - they and many members of Congress would like to straighten out the situation to gain legal status and the path to becoming U.S. citizens.

And the bill, from what we know, would lay out such a path in which it would take up to 13 years to acquire citizenship. And it would depend on first learning to speak English, undergoing a background check, paying fines and getting in line behind others already awaiting citizenship.

The other big issue is foreign labor. U.S. businesses want more highly-skilled as well as low-skilled immigrant workers. And this bill looks likely to increase such workers in both categories.

CORNISH: Now, of course, Congress did try passing a big immigration overhaul six years ago and that effort completely collapsed. Why should it be any different this time?

WELNA: Well, a couple of things have changed that make the prospects a lot better this time. For one, organized labor has gone from staunchly opposing letting in foreign workers and allowing those here to stay, to seeing such workers as potential union members - if they're given legal status. That helps on the left.

And on the right, the fact that most Latino and Asian-American voters helped reelect President Obama. And the fact that their share of the electorate will only keep growing, has convinced a lot of Republicans that the time has come to rethink their opposition to what many had dismissed as amnesty - if only to keep from losing even more support from that share of the electorate.

Lindsey Graham is a Republican senator from South Carolina, who's a member of the Gang of Eight. He says this is the year to do an immigration overhaul.

SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: I think the wind's to our back. I think the Republican Party is much more even-keeled about and practical about the 11 million. The key is keeping business and labor together on the guest worker program. But from a Republican Party point of view, I think our self-deportation days are behind us.

WELNA: And, of course, it was Mitt Romney - the Republican who lost the presidential election - who turned off a lot of Latino voters last year, when he suggested making life so hard here for illicit immigrants that they'd self-deport.

CORNISH: And, of course, the 11 million referring to the 11 million people that are believed to be here who are undocumented. Now, I understand many people blame the failure of the last attempt at immigration reform on partisan differences over a guest worker program. Is that an issue that could come up this time around?

WELNA: Well, it's looking a lot better this time. And I think a lot of it is because we saw the AFL-CIO reach agreement with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on guest workers, and that's something that had not happened before. It's auspicious for things going well this time.

CORNISH: Lastly, David, many Republicans are insisting that before anything is done about opening the path to citizenship, border security will have to be established all along the U.S.-Mexico border.

WELNA: That's right. And it's likely this bill will include a requirement that the Border Patrol apprehend 90 percent of those who try to cross the borders illegally. The head of the Border Patrol testified on the Hill yesterday, saying they were working on coming up with ways to measure their success. But that left Arizona Republican John McCain, who's also in the Gang of Eight, pretty unsatisfied.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: They have not complied with the GAO report that says they need to establish the metrics for border security. And when the Department of Homeland Security's secretary says we don't need any trigger, she has been and DHS has been particularly unhelpful.

WELNA: And, of course, the Homeland Security Secretary is Janet Napolitano. And the trigger that McCain referred to her talking about was making a path to citizenship contingent on first establishing border security. Napolitano will be the main witness next Wednesday, when the Senate Judiciary Committee holds what may be its only hearing on the immigration bill.

CORNISH: That's NPR's David Welna joining us from the Capitol. David, thank you.

WELNA: You're welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.