By Russell Berman and Jordy Yager - 04/16/13 09:00 AM EDT
The size and cost of a long-awaited immigration reform bill scheduled to be introduced on Tuesday are among its most eagerly anticipated details.
Here are five things to watch:
STATE OF THE BORDER
The biggest potential deal-breaker for Republicans will be whether they believe the Senate bill does enough to secure the U.S.-Mexico border.
For years, many Republicans have balked at immigration reform talks, arguing that the border must be secure before anything comprehensive is tackled.
How the bill establishes the triggers to determine whether the border is secure will be key.
The Homeland Security secretary has been discussed as a possibility for certifying border security benchmarks, as has the creation of an outside panel of experts. And Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has argued for giving Congress the power by requiring a vote on the issue every year.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), one of the eight senators negotiating the bill, has said the Senate plan will include more fencing along the border, but conservatives will have to decide whether it requires enough of a boost in aerial and ground forces to patrol the border.
The administration on Thursday will get a chance to rebuff criticisms of the bill — or any shortcomings it sees in the legislation — as the House Homeland Security Committee prepares to grill Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on the state of the border.
PATHWAY VS. AMNESTY
At the heart of the immigration bill will be what to do with the estimated 11 million people already in the country illegally.
President Obama has made a so-called “pathway to citizenship” the centerpiece of his proposal. But members of the Gang of Eight have had to fight hard to convince Republican skeptics that the bill will not grant “amnesty” to illegal immigrants.
“That is not amnesty,” Rubio said over the weekend. “Amnesty is the forgiveness of something.”
Instead, the group of senators argues, illegal immigrants who do not have an unrelated criminal history will have to work to stay in the country and meet a lengthy series of standards.
They will be required to pay back taxes for the years they have been in the country illegally and must be employed. The Senate bill will likely establish the amount they will have to pay as a separate fine, as well as an application fee.
On the other side, liberal advocates for immigration reform, as well as the Obama administration, have said the path to citizenship must be clear “from the start” and not be impossible for immigrants to achieve in their lifetime.
“Will the road to citizenship be achievable?” asked Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. “That’s probably our biggest question.”
A big and legitimate fear for supporters of immigration reform is how long the actual bill text will be.
One estimate has it at 1,500 pages, and the Senate Judiciary Committee has already pushed back an initial hearing on the proposal to give lawmakers more time to read it.
In 2010, the size of the healthcare reform bill — at more than 2,000 pages — provided a rallying cry for critics, who printed the legislation as a prop for floor speeches and charged that many of the lawmakers voting in favor of the legislation had not actually read it.
In the House, Republicans working on immigration reform have consciously tried to keep the page-count down on their legislation, and party leaders are considering moving proposals in separate pieces to avoid easy political attacks on a single, massive bill.
Reform advocates say a long piece of legislation is inevitable, given the sweeping scale of the proposal and how interconnected and complex immigration law is to begin with.
“Immigration code is more complex than the tax code,” said Angela Kelley, vice president for immigration policy at the liberal Center for American Progress, in an interview earlier this year. If the bill comes in at anywhere close to or above 1,000 pages, it will provide fodder for critics of a “comprehensive” approach to immigration.
Overhauling the immigration system won’t happen for free, and at a time of fiscal belt-tightening, conservatives have started to warn about the cost to taxpayers of beefing up border security, implementing new programs and allowing 11 million immigrants access to government programs from which they had previously been barred.
The Senate immigration plan is expected to add to the deficit, but the overall price tag is unclear.
Rubio and other Republican backers are already urging conservatives to judge the budgetary impact of the legislation using “dynamic scoring” — a measuring stick that would account for more of what they say will be the economic benefits of immigration reform.
Advocates of reform have tried to keep the costs down over the first decade, in part by delaying the date when most immigrants would become eligible to become citizens. Critics say that already financially strained entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid can’t afford the influx of new citizens who could be eligible for benefits.
The legislation will face a long road to passage, but the initial reaction from key leaders and influential lawmakers will be important.
Members of the Gang of Eight already expect a barrage of criticism from advocacy groups on the left and right, but the key players to watch will be Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.).
Members of the secretive House immigration coalition will also be pressed to weigh in, and while Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) said Monday the House measure would be similar, Republicans in the House group, like Rep. Raúl Labrador (Idaho), have suggested they could have problems with the Senate bill.
Mike Lillis contributed.