A guide to a divisive issue on the cusp of major reform

Nancy Benac / The Associated Press /

Published Apr 7, 2013 at 05:00AM

WASHINGTON — This may be the year Congress decides what to do about the millions of immigrants living illegally in the U.S. And this may be the week when a bipartisan group of senators makes public details of the overhaul plan it has been negotiating for months.

But what will that be? Why now? And who are all these immigrants, once you get past the big round numbers?

A big dose of facts, figures and other information to help understand the current debate over immigration:

Why now?

Major problems with U.S. immigration have been around for decades.

President George W. Bush tried to change the system and failed. President Barack Obama promised to overhaul it in his first term but never did.

In his second term, he’s making immigration a priority, and Republicans also appear ready to deal.

Why the new commitment?

Obama won 71 percent of Hispanic voters in his 2012 re-election campaign, and he owes them. Last year’s election also sent a loud message to Republicans that they can’t ignore this pivotal voting bloc.

It’s been the kind of breathtaking turnaround you rarely see in politics. Plus, there’s growing pressure from business leaders, who want to make it easier for the U.S. to attract highly educated immigrants and to legally bring in more lower-skilled workers such as farm laborers.

What’s the problem?

Talk about “comprehensive immigration reform” generally centers on four main questions:

• What to do about the 11 million-plus immigrants who live in the U.S. without legal permission.

• How to tighten border security.

• How to keep businesses from employing people who are in the U.S. illegally.

• How to improve the legal immigration system, now so convoluted that the adjective “Byzantine” pops up all too frequently.

What’s the Gang of Eight?

A group of four Democrats and four Republicans in the Senate, taking the lead in trying to craft legislation that would address all four questions.

Obama is preparing his own plan as a backup in case congressional talks fail. There’s also a bipartisan House group working on draft legislation, but House Republican leaders may leave it to the Senate to make the first move.

Coming to America

A record 40.4 million immigrants live in the U.S., representing 13 percent of the population. More than 18 million are naturalized citizens, 11 million are legal permanent or temporary residents, and more than 11 million are in the country without legal permission, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a private research organization.

Those in the U.S. illegally made up about 3.7 percent of the U.S. population in 2010. While overall immigration has steadily grown, the number of immigrants in the U.S. illegally peaked at 12 million in 2007.

We’re No. 1

The U.S. is the leading destination for immigrants. Russia’s second, with 12.3 million, according to Pew.

Where from?

Twenty-nine percent of the foreign-born in the U.S., or about 11.7 million people, came from Mexico. About 25 percent came from South and East Asia, 9 percent from the Caribbean, 8 percent from Central America, 7 percent South America, 4 percent the Middle East and the rest from elsewhere.

The figures are more lopsided for immigrants living here illegally: An estimated 58 percent are from Mexico. The next closest figure is 6 percent from El Salvador, says the government.

Where to?

California has the largest share of the U.S. immigrant population, 27 percent, followed by New York, New Jersey, Florida, Nevada, Hawaii and Texas, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a private group focused on global immigration issues.

California has the largest share of immigrants in the U.S. illegally, at 25 percent, followed by Texas with 16 percent. Florida and New York each has 6 percent, and Georgia has 5 percent, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

Getting in

Here’s one way to think about the ways immigrants arrive in the U.S: Some come in the front door, others the side door and still others the back door, as laid out in a report from the private Population Reference Bureau.

• Arriving through the front door: people legally sponsored by their families or employers. Also refugees and asylum-seekers, and immigrants who win visas in an annual “diversity” lottery.

• Side door: legal temporary arrivals, including those who get visas to visit, work or study. There are dozens of types of nonimmigrant visas, available to people ranging from business visitors to foreign athletes and entertainers. Visitors from dozens of countries don’t even need visas.

• Back door: Somewhat more than half of those in the U.S. illegally have come in the back door, evading border controls, Pew estimates. The rest legally entered, but didn’t leave when they were supposed to or otherwise violated terms of their visas.

How do we know?

It’s widely accepted that there are more than 11 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally.

But how do we know that?

Those who are living here without permission typically aren’t eager to volunteer that information. Number-crunchers dig into census data and other government surveys, make some educated assumptions, adjust for people who may be left out, mix in population information from Mexico and tend to arrive at similar figures.

The Department of Homeland Security estimates there were 11.5 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally in January 2011. Pew puts the number at 11.1 million as of March 2011.

Demographers use what’s called the “residual” method to get their tally. They take estimates of the legal foreign-born population and subtract that number from the total foreign-born population. The remainder represents those who are living in the country without legal permission.

Is it a crime?

Simply being in the United States in violation of immigration laws isn’t, by itself, a crime; it’s a civil violation.

Entering the country without permission is a misdemeanor criminal offense. Re-entering the country without authorization after being formally removed can be felony.

Pew estimates that a little less than half of immigrants who lack legal permission to live in the U.S. didn’t enter the country illegally. They overstayed their visas, worked without authorization, dropped out of school or otherwise violated the conditions of their visas.

What’s in a name?

There are varying and strong opinions about how best to refer to the 11 million-plus people who are in the U.S. without legal permission.

Illegal immigrants?

Undocumented workers?

Unauthorized population?

Illegal aliens?

The last has generally fallen out of favor. Some immigrant advocates are pressing a “Drop the I-Word” campaign, arguing that it is dehumanizing to refer to people as “illegal.”

“Undocumented worker” often isn’t accurate because many aren’t workers, and some have documents from other countries. Homeland Security reports refer to “unauthorized immigrants,” but the agency also reports statistics on “aliens apprehended.”

Going green

Is there an actual green card?

Indeed there is.

It’s the Permanent Resident Card issued to people who are authorized to live and work in the U.S. on a permanent basis. In 2010, the government redesigned them to add new security features — and make them green again.

The cards had been a variety of colors over the years. New green cards are good for 10 years for lawful permanent residents and two years for conditional residents.

Path to citizenship

There’s a lot of talk about creating a “path to citizenship” for immigrants who are in the U.S. without legal status. But there’s no consensus on what the route should be, and some conservatives reject the idea outright, seeing it as tantamount to amnesty.

There is a vigorous debate over what conditions immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally should have to satisfy to get citizenship — paying taxes or fees, passing background checks, etc.

Some Republicans want to first see improvements in border security and in tracking whether legal immigrants leave the country when required. Obama doesn’t support linking the path to citizenship with border security.

Some conservatives want to grant immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally some sort of legal status that stops short of citizenship. Some 43 percent of Americans think those who are here illegally should be eligible for citizenship, one-quarter think they should only be allowed to apply for legal residency, and about the same share think they should not be allowed to stay legally at all, according to a Pew Research Center survey released in March.

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