WASHINGTON -- Senators in the so-called gang of eight are coming close to a deal on immigration reform, and Democrats spent Wednesday assuring both activists and their colleagues on the left that the bill won't pursue border security to the detriment of a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) briefed the Congressional Hispanic Caucus on the immigration deal in the afternoon, and Menendez headed outside later in the day to speak to thousands of immigrants and allies who gathered outside the Capitol for a rally demanding swift immigration action.
One of the biggest issues for rally attendees was the pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and the question of how closely it will be tied to border security.
Some of those decisions were close to being finalized on Wednesday. The plan will likely require strict border security provisions before providing a pathway to citizenship, as reported by The New York Times. A Senate Democratic aide, who was not authorized to publicly discuss the bill negotiations, said the plan would require the Department of Homeland Security to quickly put out a border security plan that would lay out how to get to a 90-percent operational border within five years. During that time, though, immigrants could receive a work permit and begin a 10-year waiting period to apply for a green card. That process would move forward after the 10 years if security requirements were met, according to the aide.
Details are still being worked out, and senators had another meeting on Wednesday evening. Still, there seemed to be some progress in convincing Democrats outside the group that stronger border security provisions, which the gang of eight bill will include, are necessary. Congressional Hispanic Caucus members have been skeptical of additions they fear will slow or derail a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, but Schumer said they seemed willing to compromise.
"A lot of people here would not want to put dollars into the border, but as a price to get citizenship, as long as it's not an impediment to citizenship but rather works alongside citizenship, it's something we can all live with," he said after the afternoon meeting.
Hispanic Caucus member Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), who has long been critical of holding citizenship hostage to border security, seemed to agree with Schumer, focusing more than usual on enforcement aspects of the bill. He is working on a separate House bill, and said the lower chamber group planned to meet to discuss it later in the day.
"I want to end illegal immigration as we know it today so that we never have it again," he said. "I don't want another undocumented worker in this country. If we're going to get that done, we need a verification system here in the United States that makes sure that whatever program we propose, that an American citizen always has the first crack at that job."
Durbin and Schumer said they sketched out the plan during the closed-door meeting and assured the caucus members they are making progress. Durbin told reporters they are working out some final issues, including agricultural worker visas. "All of these elements are this close, and we're going to meet today, and I hope we can get it all finished," he said.
The bill was expected in late March at the earliest, or more likely this week, after senators returned from a two-week recess. It could come out as early as Thursday, but as of now, that's not likely. On Tuesday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) was reportedly planning to brief his Republican colleagues on the bill, but he wasn't there. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told reporters they would discuss the issue in a Wednesday meeting instead, but according to Republican senators, it didn't come up.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), another member of the gang of eight, said after the meeting that he and the other Republicans in the group would brief the GOP caucus before the bill was released. He said he doubted it would be this week.
It is still expected soon, and the Senate Judiciary Committee announced a hearing on immigration for April 17, with plans for a mark-up on the bill in early May.
As of now, Durbin and Schumer said there is no firm commitment within the gang of eight to stick together on every issue. Schumer said there is "a general agreement" to fight off destructive amendments in a bipartisan manner, but they have not yet discussed specifics.
"We have an entire first draft of the bill, but not everyone has agreed to each part of that draft, and people will say, 'I didn't quite mean that,' and so we have to go back and look at the language," he told reporters.
Durbin said it is their goal to get to an agreement to stick together: "We have not reached that point where we've gone around the table for that assurance, but that's our goal ... For each person at the table there's at least one element in here that is unsettling, and we've got to reach a point where there is enough concurrence and agreement [that] people will say, 'Alright, I'll stay with the package.' I hope we can reach that point."
As the senators met with the caucus, groups from across the country arrived for a major rally on immigration reform outside the Capitol. The three-hour rally took place in the afternoon in near-90-degree weather, and included a diverse but largely Latino audience that came on buses from as far as Miami and Chicago.
Like the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, they said they were anxious to see movement on immigration reform. Natalia Aristizabal, a 30-year-old youth organizer who came on a bus with the advocacy group Make the Road New York, said she wanted to see the details of the plan, not simply hear from lawmakers that they will push for it.
"We've always heard nice things, I think there are great speeches -- they have time to plan them -- but I think what we want is action," she said. "We want to see that the bill is introduced, we need to see that it's humane, that it doesn't make people wait ages before they can become citizens, and that it focuses more on family unity than border enforcement."
Menendez took the stage to huge applause during the rally and promised the crowd that the gang of eight is "writing the bill as we speak." "We will make comprehensive immigration reform a reality this year, este año," he said.
Gutierrez spoke next, and made a similar vow.
"Work hard. Push us. Keep pushing us, and together we will deliver immigration reform this year," he said. "You need to guarantee that you give me and my colleagues and the Congress of the United States no place to hide. There are no acceptable excuses for failing to pass immigration reform this year, and no excuses will be accepted."
Ryan Grim contributed reporting.