Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and six Senate Democrats introduced a beefed-up immigration reform bill Wednesday, legislation they hope will appeal to hawkish Republicans who have pushed for tougher laws.
Menendez and his colleagues said the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2011 will focus on strengthening border security, tougher worksite enforcement, and a requirement that the roughly 11 million undocumented in the U.S. register with the government.
The legislation was drafted, Menendez said, with the intention of making it more palpable to those in Congress who prefer a tough approach to immigration.
“It has provisions in there on border security to reach out and say we’re serious about getting something done,” he said. “It’s largely a multi-pronged approach that includes border enforcement, employer sanctions, future flows, a pathway to earned legalization, the DREAM Act and Ag Jobs element.”
"Today we are living with a broken immigration system that weakens our national security, hurts our workers and falls short of the most basic standard of justice," Durbin said. "To fix this system, we need a comprehensive approach that is tough, fair, and practical."
The bill was introduced just days after federal immigration authorities announced changes in enforcement. The changes, authorities said, were to focus on the most serious criminals and to give government field attorneys more discretion.
Some changes will be made to the Secure Communities program, which enables local law enforcement to share fingerprint information with federal agencies to be checked against the FBI criminal database and against immigration databases. The program is a critical tool for law enforcement agencies but needs to be tweaked to "do a better job of ensuring that the program is more focused on targeting those that pose the biggest risk to communities," said John Morton, the director of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Critics have said Secure Communities can discourage immigrants from reporting crimes and can lead to the deportation of people who haven't been convicted of any crime. Several states have declined to participate.
A new policy directs ICE officers and attorneys to use appropriate discretion to make sure victims and witnesses to crimes are not put into deportation proceedings.
Morton said he's creating an advisory committee on changing Secure Communities to focus on serious criminals. A first report, due within 45 days, will provide recommendations on how to avoid deporting people who are charged with, but not convicted of, minor traffic offenses if they have no other criminal history or serious immigration violations.
That position does not sit well with proponents of strict immigration enforcement, however, who say people who have not committed crimes but who are here illegally should be arrested and deported nonetheless.
Many groups have called Morton’s announcement about changes in enforcement a step toward “amnesty.”
Menendez, for his part, expressed ambivalence toward the new enforcement policies. The White House, he said, long has said its priority in immigration enforcement is going after people who pose a national security or public safety threat.
But critics of immigration enforcement programs complain that they disproportionately target people with civil violations over criminals.
“Stating it is not what’s important, it’s getting the enforcement process to focus that way,” Menendez said. “In our meetings with President Obama, we’ve said, ‘You have administrative powers, in a limited way, that you should use to give some immigrants relief by suspending deportation for those who qualify under DREAM Act provisions, and those who have nuclear family members who are U.S. citizens who can claim them.'
“It wouldn’t solve comprehensive immigration reform, but it would give some meaningful relief and show the administration is willing to help the immigrant community,” he added.
As for Wednesday's bill, Menendez said some Republicans privately have indicated a willingness to move forward with comprehensive immigration reform.
“Hopefully, we’ll get Republican support,” he said. “The reality is, electorally, Republicans cannot continue to take positions they’ve taken [on immigration] and win.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.