Bennet, Gang of 8 ready to begin big immigration reform push

DENVER — The country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants would be eligible for a 13-year path to citizenship under a landmark immigration reform package that is being unveiled in Washington Tuesday by a bipartisan team of eight U.S. Senators including Colorado Democrat Michael Bennet.

A press conference that had been planned for Tuesday has been postponed because of the deadly bombing at the Boston Marathon on Monday, but the legislation itself will get its first Senate hearing Friday and is certain to dominate the political debate for months to come.

The legislation, which is still being written, is called the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013.”

According to a summary of the bill provided to FOX31 Denver, the government must meet certain benchmarks of improved border security over the next decade to trigger the path to citizenship.

Immigrants will only be able to apply for provisional or “Registered Provisional Immigrant” (RPI) status after the Secretary of Homeland Security can verify that several criteria have been met: that plans for comprehensive border security and southern border fencing have been submitted to Congress.

At that point, undocumented immigrants will be able to pay $2,000 in fines and, upon passing a background check, apply for RPI status, which would enable them to work legally and travel freely outside the country.

RPI status would have to be renewed after six years. After 10 years, the provisional immigrant would be able to apply for a Green Card and, after three more years, for full U.S. citizenship.

Young people brought to the U.S. by their parents and agricultural workers — a provision Bennet fought for and helped author — would get an expedited path and could apply for full citizenship after just five years.

To reach the border security goals, the legislation appropriates $4.5 billion to cover the cost of additional border patrol and customs agents, surveillance systems and unmanned aerial drones.

It would also require businesses to implement new electronic-verification requirements to check the immigration status of their employees.

The plan calls for a sizable increase in high-skilled visas, fees for employers that hire a large number foreign workers, and it institutes a ban on those companies applying for additional H-1B visas in the future.

The senators would increase the current number of H-1B visas from 65,000 to 110,000, which could be increased to 180,000 visas based on demand for high-skilled jobs. Companies that get 30 percent or more of their workforce from H-1B visa holders would have to pay new fees.

Bennet also pushed for the creation of a new “Invest” visa for foreign entrepreneurs who are able to secure $100,000 or more in investment capital.

While Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, an oft-mentioned 2016 GOP presidential hopeful, is the Gang of Eight’s de facto spokesperson — he hit a whopping seven Sunday morning shows in an effort to rally public support — Bennet’s role as a member of the group shouldn’t be overlooked.

Bennet, in just his fourth year in Congress, was hardly the the principal lawmaker driving the bus on immigration, so to speak — but he’s on the bus and, according to those close to the senator, he’s relishing the long, bipartisan process of hammering out a compromise that has stymied lawmakers for decades.

In February, just after the main pieces of the proposal were first revealed, Bennet visited with about 100 Hispanic constituents in Denver; and the group didn’t hesitate to express its frustrations about possibly delaying the path to citizenship, never mind making it contingent on additional border security measures.

Bennet, the newly appointed chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, knows as well as anyone how much his party owes to Hispanic voters; but, as he attempted to explain to that room of constituents, an immediate path to citizenship is a fantasy that could never clear Congress.

As this debate begins, an increasingly influential Colorado Democrat is right in the middle of it as someone who not only had a hand in crafting specific provisions of the legislation, but as someone who will be relied on to sell the proposal both to colleagues on Capitol Hill and to constituents across his incredibly complex, diverse state.