For immigration bill authors, it’s pathway to citizenship or bust

Chris Moody
Political Reporter
The Ticket

The lead authors of the Senate immigration reform bill are dug in on the question of whether the final product must include a "pathway to citizenship" for many of the 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally.

The bill will die if it does not include such a pathway, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York told reporters Thursday.

"There's no way of getting this job done without giving people a path to citizenship," McCain said during a Christian Science Monitor breakfast that Schumer also attended. "To say that you can have a legal status but you can't ever have a path to become a citizen of his country offends our fundamental principles of fairness in this country. I know that that opposition is there; I don't think it's valid and I don't think it's held even by a majority of Republicans, certainly not in the Senate."

Whether unauthorized immigrants should be given the choice to remain here without returning to their home country first has remained a sticking point for some Republican lawmakers. In an interview with CBS News on Wednesday, Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz warned that including a pathway to citizenship would likely "scuttle the bill." Others in the House have said they will refuse any attempts to offer what they call "amnesty" for such immigrants.

According to the language of the Senate bill, those living in the U.S. illegally who arrived before Dec. 31, 2011, must wait up to 13 years to achieve citizenship, and only after undergoing a rigorous application system that includes background checks, proof of access to gainful employment and the paying of back taxes and fines. The federal government will also have to comply with a strict set of enforcement mandates for the pathway provisions to trigger.

During the breakfast meeting, Schumer seconded McCain's prediction about the bill's fate.

"Any attempt to say in the House that you will not have a path to citizenship will be a nonstarter, and I say that unequivocally," Schumer said, pounding his fist on the table. "It will not pass the Senate. I don't think it would get a Democratic vote."

"A majority of Republicans support it," Schumer said, before McCain interjected.

"As long as—" McCain said.

"—there's a path," Schumer said. "You earn it."

"Right," McCain added.

McCain also reiterated his warning to Republicans that a failure to pass an immigration overhaul could be devastating to the party in the future. Passage won't automatically gain votes, he said, but it will keep the party competitive.

"If we pass this legislation, it won't gain us a single Hispanic vote. But what it will do is put us on a playing field where we can compete. Right now we cannot compete," McCain said. "It's a demographic certainty that if we condemn ourselves to 15, 20, 25 percent of the Hispanic vote, we will not win elections, but I have no illusions about whether passage of this legislation will gain Hispanic voters. It won't."

The Senate is currently holding hearings about the immigration bill in the Judiciary Committee, and supporters say they expect a vote in the chamber by early summer.