Raising the curtain on what promises to be a new round of debate over Immigration reform, a group of Democratic lawmakers introduced a comprehensive bill Tuesday in Washington that, among other provisions, offers a path to legalization for the country's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.
The bill, championed by U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., was decidedly more pro-Immigration than previous bipartisan legislation that he and others drafted in search of compromise with Republicans wanting more restrictions and enforcement, only to be defeated in Congress two years ago.
Obama administration to act fast, drew immediate fire from the left as well as the right. Groups opposed to legalization derided it as a form of amnesty, and more liberal factions complained that it relies too heavily on enforcement.
Besides legalization, the bill proposes to get rid of a federal provision that empowers local police to act as Immigration agents, provides 100,000 extra visas for immigrants from countries with high rates of illegal Immigration and expedites legal Immigration for close relatives of U.S. citizens and lawful residents.
The bill also calls for beefing up border security and overhauling the federal detention system for jailed immigrants to provide for better medical treatment and other services.
Gutierrez, one of 87 House Democrats sponsoring the legislation, said the 700-page bill is based on months of discussions with community organizations, unions and other groups around the country in hopes of gaining enough momentum to get reforms passed.
"Now, there's a bill with a following," Gutierrez said.
U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., Gutierrez's former partner in previous Immigration bills, issued a statement Tuesday that said he was "disappointed" by the new legislation.
With conservative groups already sending blast e-mails and faxes against the bill, said Gutierrez in a telephone interview, "the president's going to need that (grass-roots support) when he gets ready to act. We all need popular support, and I think we're going to have it this time."
But any serious consideration seems months away.
A spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is not a bill sponsor, said she supports it but wants to wait on the Senate to act first on the issue. A more moderate Immigration bill is expected to be introduced in the Senate next month, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., saying he hopes to launch a debate there during the first half of next year.
President Barack Obama has said he expects to take up the Immigration issue after the health care debate is over and Congress finishes work on energy reforms and regulating financial markets -- potentially driving the debate close to midterm elections in November.
Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA in Washington, called the bill's timing a tactical error, predicting the bad economy would derail it.
"At a time when we have this incredible unemployment, when we have a mismatch of the number of workers in this country with the number of jobs, it's just incredible to introduce legislation that will increase the number of workers by importing more (immigrant) workers," said Beck, whose group advocates reducing all forms of Immigration.
Beck conceded, however, that he supports one bill provision that requires employers using special-skills visas to prove they tried to hire Americans before bringing in more foreign workers.
In Chicago, Los Angeles and other cities with large immigrant populations, the bill was received with enthusiasm by immigrant advocates, but also with some worry that there are not enough protections for immigrants' rights.
Sung Yeon Choi-Morrow, an organizer for the Asian American Institute in Chicago, was happy the bill emphasizes family reunification -- a prevalent issue among Asian immigrants with families waiting on U.S. visa applications for as many as 10 years.
But the tighter rules for special-skills visas could potentially force more Asian immigrants out of the country, Choi-Morrow said.
"For us, that's a big concern," she said.