U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., visited the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce on Monday to discuss his platform on immigration reform and a pending immigration bill that would introduce a guest worker program for illegal immigrants already working in the United States.
A member of the “Gang of Eight,” the bipartisan group of senators composing the bill, Flake is advocating for the low-skilled worker program that would allow illegal immigrants to apply for citizenship after a 10-year probationary work period.
“That path to citizenship to me is important,” said Flake. “I’ve always felt if someone is going to be here for 20 or 30 years, isn’t it better that they are offered a path to citizenship? Isn’t it better that they take on the rights and responsibilities of citizenship?”
Immigrants who complete the 10-year probation but do not wish to become citizens would be allowed to stay in the country with a permanent legal status after a year of working.
Children of illegal immigrants would automatically receive an expedited path toward citizenship.
Flake said measures would be placed to ensure probation applicants are not cutting in line ahead of immigrants who have taken the proper steps to apply for citizenship.
Despite criticism from some conservative groups that the bill is too lenient on lawbreaking immigrants, Flake sees the bill as a progressive representation of bipartisan cooperation.
“There were conservative Republicans who didn’t want immigration reform, that was certainly the case, but there were some on the other side as well,” he said. “I say let bygones be bygones, and let’s go into this in a bipartisan way, and I think we have done that with the guest worker element of this proposal.”
According to Flake, illegal immigrants would not have access to the path to citizenship until it was determined the border has reached a certain level of security.
To make that happen, Flake is calling for increased border patrol and customs agents, along with additional surveillance and fencing.
Funding for the added resources would come in part by fines implemented on illegal immigrants who apply for the probationary period. Those immigrants would also be subject to a criminal background check and back-taxes.
Workers in the probation program would be allowed to move between employers, and between Mexico and the United States.
Unlike some of his conservative colleagues, Flake said his interest in securing the border should not be mistaken as a desire to seal the border, which he argues would too negatively affect the economy.
“We benefit substantially from a country and as a state from this legal commerce that comes through,” he said, citing successes in the Yuma port of entry.
Surveys suggest that about 90 percent of the illegal immigrants in the country are already working.
While the bill focuses largely on low-skill workers, Flake also voiced his opinion that illegal immigrants who graduate from American universities should be offered the right to stay in the country.
The bill is set to go into effect in April of 2015 pending approval from Congress.