Members of the Senate's bipartisan Gang of Eight stress that under their new immigration plan, currently illegal immigrants will have to wait more than a decade before achieving citizenship. Newly legalized immigrants will be given a provisional status and "will have to stay in that status until at least 10 years elapse and (border security) triggers are met," Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio told Fox News on April 14. After that, Rubio said, they'll have to wait longer for a green card and, ultimately, citizenship.
Unless they don't. A little-noticed exception in the Gang of Eight bill provides a fast track for many — possibly very many — currently illegal immigrants. Under a special provision for immigrants who have labored at least part-time in agriculture, that fast track could mean permanent residency in the U.S., and then citizenship, in half the time Rubio said. And not just for the immigrants themselves — their spouses and children, too.
First the agricultural workers. The Gang of Eight bill creates something called a blue card, which would be granted to illegal immigrant farm workers who come forward and pass the various background checks the bill requires for all illegal immigrants. Instead of the 10-year wait Rubio described in media appearances, blue card holders could receive permanent legal status in just five years.
How does an illegal immigrant qualify for a blue card? If, after passing the background checks, he can prove that he has worked in agriculture for at least 575 hours — about 72 eight-hour days — sometime in the two years ending December 31, 2012, he can be granted a blue card. That's it. His spouse and children can be granted blue cards, too — it can all be done with one application.
The bill's supporters point out that the Gang of Eight would limit the period of time in which illegal immigrants can apply for a blue card. That's true; the bill specifies that applications have to be filed in the year after the last of the rules enforcing the new immigration law have gone into effect. But the bill also gives the Secretary of Homeland Security the discretion to extend that period by another year and a half if she or he determines that "additional time is required" for the applications. The extension can also be granted for any other "good cause."
The next step happens five years after the Gang of Eight bill is enacted. At that time, the legislation requires the Secretary of Homeland Security to change the blue card holder's status to that of permanent resident if the immigrant has worked in agriculture at least 150 days in each of three of those five years since the bill became law. A work day is defined as 5.75 hours. Also, the immigrant can qualify for permanent residence with less than three years, of 150 work days each, if he can show that he was disabled, ill, or had to deal with the "special needs of a child" during that time period.
So the road to permanent resident status that Rubio said would take a decade will take only five years for currently illegal immigrants who have done some work in agriculture.
A second provision in the legislation creates another fast track for illegal immigrants who came to the United States before they were 16 — the so-called Dreamers.
The bill gives them, and their spouses and children, permanent resident status after five years. To get that, they have to have completed high school or earned an equivalency degree. In addition, the bill says the immigrant must have a college degree, or completed two years of college, or served in the U.S. military for at least four years.
That requirement is often cited by Dream Act supporters to show the tough standards immigrants must meet. But the very next section of the bill outlines a "hardship exception," which says the immigrant may be awarded permanent legal status if he or she has not completed college, or not completed two years of college, or not served in the military at all. The immigrant who has done none of those things may still be fast-tracked if he can "demonstrate compelling circumstances for the inability to satisfy the requirement." The bill does not specify what those compelling circumstances might be; the discretion for such decisions lies with the Secretary of Homeland Security.
Together, the agricultural and Dreamer exceptions could affect millions of currently illegal immigrants. The bottom line is that what Rubio claimed would be a long and arduous path to legal residency and then citizenship will be much shorter for some than for others.
Byron York is chief political correspondent for The Washington Examiner.