WASHINGTON — A comprehensive immigration-reform bill may pass through Congress this year, but significant obstacles remain, including the Obama administration’s intent to extend the bill’s legal protections to same-sex couples.

The proposed frameworks for immigration reform that have emerged thus far from the White House and a bipartisan group of U.S. senators share many of the same basic components. Both plans include the so-called pathway to citizenship — which critics decry as amnesty — that would grant legal residency to the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.

“We’re very optimistic that something is going to be done, finally. I think both sides have a lot of political cover to get it done,” said Allen Sanchez, executive director of the New Mexico Conference of Catholic Bishops.

However, there are still difficult issues to be worked out, especially as to whether the pathway to citizenship should be contingent on securing the border.

“We are certainly sensitive to those issues in making sure we have a secure border, but I don’t think you make any progress on the immigration issue by making things contingent on each other. These are pretty straightforward, important issues that should be pursued independently of one another,” said Jeffery Patterson, executive director of the Texas Catholic Conference.

The politics also remain tricky; the leading Republican senators in the bipartisan group, nicknamed the Gang of Eight, were rankled recently by the White House leaking drafts of its own bills to the press. Meanwhile, any legislation granting legal residency to undocumented immigrants — even with a bipartisan imprimatur — will probably still face opposition from conservative members in the Senate and House of Representatives.

Patterson said the Catholic Church, at the state and national levels, has advocated for a sensible immigration policy that keeps families together and grants opportunities for undocumented immigrants who want to become American citizens.

“I think the Catholic Church’s position in the United States has been consistent,” Patterson said. “Immigration reform has to be done in an open, transparent process in which people’s lives and dignity are upheld.”


Obama’s Plan

President Barack Obama’s immigration plan — drafts of which were leaked to USA Today on Feb. 16 — would allow undocumented immigrants to become legal, permanent residents with green cards within eight years. They would have to pay back taxes, learn English and complete American civics classes.

Also, the undocumented immigrants would not be allowed to become citizens before those seeking entry into the country through legal channels; that timeline would have undocumented migrants waiting about 13 years to become United States citizens, according to some estimates.

The Obama plan also calls for hiring more border-patrol agents and adding 140 judges to speed up the immigration court system. Employers would also be required to check their workers’ immigration status. Undocumented immigrants would have to pass criminal background checks, pay fees to qualify for a valid visa and would need to submit their biometric information to the government.

Those proposals are nearly identical to those made by the Gang of Eight, which consists of Sens. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., John McCain, R-Ariz., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., Robert Menendez, D-N.J., Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Richard Durbin, D-Ill.

However, the senators’ framework also includes steps to enhance border security by hiring more border-patrol agents and using unmanned drones. Their plan would also require employers to verify workers’ immigration statuses. Undocumented immigrants would need to learn English and American civics, pay fines and back taxes and would be sent to the “back of the line,” meaning they could not get green cards until those already waiting for a green card received one.

The Gang of Eight’s plan also includes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented migrants, but it would be contingent on the border being declared secure. Exactly how that determination of security would be made has yet to be worked out.

In contrast, the Obama administration is refusing to make the border-security issue a deciding factor for granting legal status to undocumented immigrants. U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano told the Senate Judiciary Committee Feb. 13 that she agreed on the need for increased border enforcement, but she questioned the wisdom of making legalization contingent on a “trigger.”

“A trigger implies that you don’t get to these other things until ‘X’ is met, when, in fact, these all have to be looked at simultaneously,” she said.


Security Concerns

Rubio countered that the Obama administration must accept security triggers.

“This is a principle agreed to by the bipartisan group of senators I am working with, and it is something that must be included in any legislative proposal if it is to be successful,” Rubio said in prepared remarks.

“Secretary Napolitano’s refusal to accept this bipartisan principle at [the Feb. 13] Senate hearing is discouraging for those of us who are serious about permanently fixing America’s immigration system. By continuing to oppose a key security principle with bipartisan backing, Secretary Napolitano and this administration appear to be laying the groundwork to scuttle the bipartisan effort in the Senate,” Rubio added.

Sanchez told the Register that border crossings have decreased to the point that delaying legal status for immigrants is unnecessary.

“Basically, if [the immigrants] can prove that they have been residing here peacefully, with no criminal activity, then there is no reason not to move that along,” Sanchez said.

“We have a tremendous amount of good, hardworking, civic-minded undocumented immigrants in this country who provide a true backbone to our economy and our community,” Patterson told the Register.

“Not giving them the opportunity to become legal residents in a way that preserves their dignity, their families and helps them to achieve the American dream like the rest of us is tremendously shortsighted. Government at the state and federal levels should recognize that,” Patterson said.

Rubio and other senators have wondered about the Obama administration’s intentions when it leaked its draft immigration bills to USA Today. Rubio said the president’s bills were disappointing, “half-baked,” “seriously flawed” and would be “dead on arrival” in Congress. 

“It would actually make our immigration problems worse and would further undermine the American people’s confidence in Washington’s ability to enforce our immigration laws and reform our broken immigration system,” Rubio said.

The White House said it reached out to the eight senators’ offices, including Rubio’s, to affirm their commitment to a bipartisan approach to immigration reform. However, the White House, in its Feb. 19 statement, also reaffirmed the president’s intent to introduce his own bill if “Congress fails to act.”

The chances of Obama unilaterally introducing legislation that would pass through Congress is questionable, though, because Republican lawmakers would be loath to support a bill — especially one put forward by the president — without a bipartisan stamp to provide political cover.


Bishops’ Position

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has long been pushing for comprehensive immigration reform, welcomes the possibility that Congress might finally tackle the politically sensitive issue, though the bishops have some critiques about the current proposals.

Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Migration, said in prepared remarks that the Gang of Eight’s framework, while an important first step, still “leaves room for improvement.”

The senators’ plan, the archbishop said, fails to restore due-process protections to immigrants lost in the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act and does not address the root causes of migration, such as the absence of living-wage employment or protection for refugees fleeing persecution.

Archbishop Gomez pledged the USCCB’s support in pushing “sound immigration legislation” forward and working with Congress to create an immigration system that balances human rights and national security.

“A reformed system can protect human dignity and the homeland at the same time,” Archbishop Gomez said.

The nation’s Catholic bishops introduced several policy proposals in their 2003 pastoral letter on immigration, “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope.” Those proposals include: a pathway to citizenship, protection and enhancement of the family-based immigration system, allowing low-skilled migrant workers to enter the United States safely and legally with appropriate wage and worker protections, restoring due-process rights lost in the 1996 Illegal Immigrant Responsibility Act and addressing the root causes, such as economic injustice and political instability, that force people to leave their countries of origin.


Same-Sex Partners

But the administration has called into question its Catholic support and also rankled Republican lawmakers by insisting that immigration reform extend to same-sex partners. The White House, on its website, says its plan “treats same-sex families as families by giving U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents the ability to seek a visa on the basis of a permanent relationship with a same-sex partner.”

Such a plan — which is not in the Gang of Eight proposal — would mark a significant shift in federal law. Homosexuals in states that allow same-sex “marriage” currently cannot confer legal status on their immigrant partners in the same manner that a husband and wife can. The 1996 federal Defense of Marriage Act, which the administration is arguing against in the Supreme Court as unconstitutional, prohibits the federal government from granting benefits to same-sex couples.

Homosexual-rights groups are lobbying for the same-sex inclusion in the immigration bill, as are several congressional Democrats. They say the legislation would affect 30,000-40,000 homosexual Americans and their partners.

The USCCB has written the White House to express its concerns over the same-sex provision, which could undermine support for reform, said Kevin Appleby, director of the USCCB’s Office of Migration Policy and Public Affairs.

“Immigration is hard enough without making it harder by adding another controversial issue to it,” Appleby told the Register.

McCain also warned a Politico-sponsored forum on Jan. 30 that loading immigration reform with “social issues and things that are controversial ... will endanger the issue.”

Rubio said during a Feb. 5 interview with the website BuzzFeed that if the same-sex issue “becomes a central issue in the debate, it’s going to become harder to get it done because there will be strong feelings on both sides.”

Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Feb. 12, Archbishop Gomez said the same-sex legislative language would erode the unique meaning of marriage and unnecessarily introduce controversy into an already divisive debate.

Said the archbishop, “We should not jeopardize the success of comprehensive immigration reform by using it as a vehicle to advance an issue that is already the source of polarizing debate in the states and in the courts.”

Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.