By Russell Berman - 04/17/13 11:58 PM EDT
The far-reaching Senate immigration bill won praise from a broad cross section of liberal and conservative advocacy groups upon its formal introduction on Wednesday, as lawmakers began to comb through the 844-page overhaul.
The bipartisan Gang of Eight filed its long-awaited proposal, titled the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, in the early morning hours. They characterized it as a “starting point” in a bid to rewrite immigration law to boost border security, create a guest-worker program and provide a pathway to citizenship for an estimated 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally.
“I will do everything in my power to get this legislation across the finish line,” Reid said.
After a drafting process that included side agreements with business, labor and agricultural groups, the legislation earned positive initial reviews from across the political spectrum, including Latino groups and conservative activist Grover Norquist, News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I).
But in an indication of the long road ahead, many advocates and organizations withheld formal endorsements and pledged to try to change the bill to their liking.
“As is to be expected in an 844-page first response to an issue as complex as immigration, there are several details in the bill that cause unintended, but serious, harm to immigrant workers and the broader labor market,” said Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, in a statement.
“We will work to correct those problems now that a bill is before the Senate Judiciary Committee,” Trumka said.
Liberal immigration reform advocates voiced concern over the arduous path to citizenship, which is linked to enhancements in border security and could take well over a decade for most immigrants in the country illegally. But they stopped short of declaring the provisions unacceptable.
“I would prefer a quicker path, but lets see how it ends up in the end,” freshman Rep. Joaquín Castro (D-Texas) said.
Conservative opponents of a path to citizenship quickly declared the bill a form of “amnesty,” reprising the central and most devastating attack that doomed the last major immigration reform push, in 2007.
“This bill is legalization first, not enforcement first,” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said in lengthy statement. “The day the bill passes there will be effective amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants, with only the same promises we have heard before of enforcement to occur at some later date.”
The former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), said the bill was “worse than we thought.”
He singled out provisions that could grant legal status to relatives of illegal immigrants and that would allow some already deported immigrants to return to the United States.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a conservative member of the Senate group who was tasked with winning over the political right, launched an immediate rapid-response effort aimed at stomping out “misinformation” before it spreads across conservative talk radio and blogs.
The first order of business for Rubio was denouncing charges that a provision of the bill would give free cellphones to immigrants entering the U.S. from Mexico on a work visa.
“That’s just ridiculous,” Rubio told reporters in the Capitol, repeating a message he delivered on The Laura Ingraham Show earlier in the day. “That language came from a 2011 border enforcement bill.”
He said the provision originated after a rancher was killed neared the border in a region with poor cellphone service. It was designed as a grant to make it easier for residents to make emergency calls in the event of violence from illegal border crossings.
While some reform advocates have said a bill needs to move quickly once its introduced to avoid being picked to death by critics, Rubio has pushed for a lengthy process of hearings and debate, in the hope that careful consideration will ease conservative concerns.
“I just think the important thing is to explain clearly what’s in it and what’s not in it,” he said. “Misinformation is always the enemy of any reform effort.”
The release of the Senate bill prompted the group’s more secretive counterpart in the House to break its public silence and praise the effort.
“Americans want to see the nation’s broken immigration system fixed, and they know it will take bipartisanship to solve this problem in a sensible and rational way. This week, a bipartisan group of Senators stepped forward to introduce their proposal, and we applaud their effort,” the eight-member House group said in its first official joint statement.
“We are also working on a good faith, bipartisan effort in the House. We believe we will soon agree on a reasonable, common-sense plan to finally secure our borders and strengthen our economy with a tough but fair process for immigrants to fully contribute to our country that respects the rule of law,” the House group said.
Rubio and the other senators are still planning a public unveiling of the bill that will include prominent backers.
But with attention in Washington focused on major votes on gun legislation in the Senate and the investigation into Monday’s Boston Marathon bombings, the immigration bill’s moment in the spotlight will have to wait.
Without an initial uproar of criticism, the legislation’s sponsors were pleased with the early reviews.
“So far, so good,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said.