WASHINGTON - Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl unveiled an immigration reform bill Tuesday that would let young immigrants, brought to the United States illegally by their parents, gain legal status over the course of several years.
Kyl said his Achieve Act, co-sponsored with fellow Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, will let otherwise law-abiding immigrants go to school, get a job and - provided they stay out of trouble - remain in the U.S. legally.
"We have to get this ball rolling," said Kyl, who, like Hutchison, is retiring at the end of the year. "We have to have a discussion that is sensible, that is calm, that discusses all the different aspects of the issue."
Kyl and Hutchison called their bill a better approach than the DREAM Act, a long-debated plan that would create a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants brought here as children. Under the Achieve Act, immigrants would not get citizenship but would be allowed to stay on renewable visas.
Kyl said the Achieve Act addresses many of the problems that critics had with the DREAM Act.
But at least one critic was not convinced Tuesday. Ira Mehlman said both bills are flawed because they have the same result.
"The Achieve Bill, like the DREAM Act, results in millions of illegal aliens being allowed to remain and work here, and eventually gain legal status," Mehlman, a spokesman at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said in an email.
"The process for achieving the end result may be somewhat different than under the DREAM Act, but the final result is still amnesty," he said.
Mehlman said the inevitable response will still be more people thinking they can send their children here illegally in the belief that the U.S. will provide amnesty at some point.
"It does nothing to address the circumstances that led to large-scale illegal immigration in the first place," Mehlman said. "It does nothing to improve border security, deter employment of illegal aliens, or any other form of enforcement."
Border security was a concern of Gov. Jan Brewer's, who said through a spokesman that she was studying the Kyl bill. Even though the "immigration system is broken," Brewer said, border security should be the first priority at this time.
Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Mesa, also said he had not had a chance to fully study the bill. But Flake, who will be replacing Kyl in the Senate next year, said the bill seems to be "a good starting point for discussion."
"The Obama administration's incomplete approach toward the young people here illegally through no fault of their own necessitates the need to realistically and humanely deal with this issue," Flake said through a spokeswoman.
But both Kyl and Hutchison said comprehensive immigration reform is a challenge because of the difficulty of dealing with all aspects of such a plan.
"I think taking one step at a time is the right way to go," Hutchison said. "And I think you would also lessen the number of illegal immigrants that are here by taking a part at a time."
Under their bill, qualified immigrants would face a three-step process to gaining legal status that could take up to 10 years.
Eligible immigrants would first apply for a W-1 visa that would give them up to six years to get a college degree or serve a four-year stint in the military. They could then apply for a four-year W-2 work visa and, finally, a W-3 nonimmigrant visa allowing them to stay here. But that visa would be subject to renewal every four years and would make recipients ineligible for welfare benefits.
Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute office at the New York University School of Law, said that without a path to permanent residency, the Kyl/Hutchison bill will result in an even greater immigration backlog. Those targeted by the bill would just have to join the back of the line on their path to citizenship.
Chishti is dubious about the bill's chances.
"There is a lot that's not known," he said. "Is this a more symbolic gesture or is it a serious attempt at legislation?"
He is inclined to think it is more symbolic, as both Kyl and Hutchison are on the way out of office.
"It's hard to see how much relevance it will carry into the next Congress when they're gone," said Chishti, who said the bill's success could ride on finding co-sponsors - Republican and Democratic - who will be around in the next Congress.
Kyl conceded that the fate of the bill will likely be left in the hands of future lawmakers.
"It's theoretically possible that this could be taken up in the lame-duck session, but it's doubtful," he said Tuesday.
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