White House defends behind-the-scenes immigration reform bid

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In this Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013, file photo, President Barack Obama speaks about immigration at Del Sol High School in Las Vegas. The White House is circulating a draft immigration bill that would create a new visa for illegal immigrants living in the United States and allow them to become legal permanent residents within eight years, according to a report published online Saturday, Feb. 16, 2013 by USA Today. AP PHOTO/CAROLYN KASTER

WASHINGTON—The White House defended its behind-the-scenes work on immigration reform Sunday after a plan leaked to the US media was panned by a key Republican as “half-baked and seriously flawed.”

USA Today said the plan being drafted by administration and which is already circulating among various government agencies would allow illegal immigrants to become legal permanent US residents within eight years.

Republicans immediately attacked the plan and sharply criticized the White House for developing it without consulting them.

Senator Marco Rubio, who is leading Republican efforts on immigration legislation after his party’s poor performance with Latino voters in November elections, said the president’s plan would be “dead on arrival” in Congress.

“This legislation is half-baked and seriously flawed,” he said, adding, “It would actually make our immigration problems worse.”

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, Obama urged Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform “in the next few months.”

Joint plan

And eight senators—four of Obama’s Democratic allies and four Republicans—unveiled a joint plan last month aiming to provide a legal status to illegal immigrants living on US soil.

White House chief of staff Denis McDonough insisted on Sunday that the administration was working intensely with the so-called “gang of eight,” including Rubio.

“And we’re going to continue to work with Senator Rubio and others on this,” McDonough said, in an interview with ABC News.

“But he says it’s dead on arrival if it’s proposed. Well, let’s make sure that it doesn’t have to be proposed.

“Let’s make sure that that group up there, the gang of eight, makes good progress on these efforts, as much as they say they want to.”

Obama has warned that he will present his own immigration bill if Congress cannot soon come to an agreement, and the draft plan appeared to be the administration’s answer if the senators’ efforts fall short.

The USA Today report said that under the administration’s draft the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States could apply for a “Lawful Prospective Immigrant” visa.

Visa applicants would need to pass a criminal background check, file biometric information and pay fees.

But once approved, they would be allowed to reside in the United States legally, to work and to leave the country for short visits without losing their status.

New identification card

A new identification card would prove their legal residence in the country.

And, within eight years, the immigrants could apply for a green card to obtain legal permanent residence if they learn English and “the history and government of the United States.” They would also have to pay back taxes.

With green card in hand, the immigrants would then be on a path to apply for US citizenship.

The plan would also allocate additional security funds and require business owners to check the immigration status of any new hires within four years.

Rubio said Obama’s bill was not tough enough on securing the long border the United States shares with Mexico, and it “puts those who broke our immigration laws at an advantage over those who chose to do things the right way and come here legally.”

The National Immigration Forum, which advocates for immigration reform, said the White House proposal seemed “very moderate,” but should have gone further in overhauling the immigration system beyond citizenship and enforcement.

It also warned that a large increase in border patrol agents and immigration judges, as advocated in the president’s plan, “would be better used at ports of entry and reducing the backlog for legal immigrants.”

The burst of activity on Capitol Hill marks the best chance in years to craft legislation to tighten border security, improve employment verification and bring the huge illegal immigrant population out of legal limbo.

A 2007 effort spearheaded by then-president George W. Bush failed.

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