WASHINGTON * Comprehensive immigration reform appears closer than ever, after a bipartisan group of senators, the "Gang of Eight," put forward a proposal that represents months of careful negotiation and calibrated compromises.
The push for comprehensive reform has the support of a wide variety of religious organizations, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Council of Jewish Women, NETWORK, and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service. All voiced praise for the proposal from the Gang of Eight, although they also called for improvements in the legislation. Three hundred evangelical Christian leaders met in Washington April 23 the day the proposal was announced to praise the reform effort as well.
One of the biggest controversies, creating a pathway to full citizenship for undocumented immigrants, was resolved by establishing a 13-year waiting period for full citizenship but not insisting that those who apply leave the country while waiting. The DREAM Act, designed to grant citizenship to those brought to the country without documentation as children, was greatly expanded, reducing the time limit to five years.
Both measures will help bring undocumented immigrants "out of the shadows," said Kevin Appleby, director of the U.S. bishops' Committee on Migration.
The proposal contains triggers, requiring certain border security benchmarks be met, before the benefits kick in. It provides $6.5 billion in new funding for border security. And negotiators got both the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce to agree to provisions governing migratory workers.
Family reunification remains a sticking point, as the proposal eliminates expedited visas for adult children and siblings of U.S. citizens and green-card holders.
Four Republican senators, Marco Rubio of Florida, Jeff Flake and John McCain of Arizona, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, joined with four Democratic senators, Charles Schumer of New York, Bob Menendez of New Jersey, Dick Durbin of Illinois, and Michael Bennet of Colorado, to form the Gang of Eight. Their legislation is known as the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, or S. 744.
Rubio's support for the measure is considered critical because of his strong affiliation with the tea party wing of the GOP caucus. Schumer led the Democrats in negotiating the policy differences between the two sides.
To bolster support, New York Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the bishops' conference, joined Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez and Salt Lake City Bishop John Wester on a conference call with reporters April 22. Gomez and Wester are chairmen respectively of the bishops' migration and communications committees.
"Perhaps more than any other religion in the United States we are a faith of immigrants," Dolan said. "We've been a nation of immigrants but it's almost as if the Catholic church is an icon of the immigrant makeup of the United States of America."
The bishops expressed the hope that the Gang of Eight's proposal could be amended to shorten the waiting time for undocumented immigrants to become citizens from the proposed 13-year wait to less than 10 years. They also called for stronger family reunification provisions.
Gomez linked the immigration battle with the bishops' ongoing religious liberty campaign. "That is one element of the campaign, the Fortnight for Freedom, to point out the religious freedom aspects of serving immigrants and refugees," he said. "We've seen in Arizona and other [state's] laws attempts to criminalize assistance at times to immigrants and refugees, which would impose on our pastoral mission."
The "Fortnight for Freedom" was a two-week effort last year to call attention to the issue of religious liberty. The bishops' conference is planning a second fortnight this summer.
Dolan forcefully rebutted …