WASHINGTON -- A bipartisan group of senators has largely agreed on a broad immigration bill that would require tough border measures to be in place before illegal immigrants could take the first steps to become American citizens, according to several people familiar with drafts of the legislation.
But in a delicate compromise worked out over weeks of negotiations, the bill avoids any hard hurdles related to border enforcement that could eventually halt the progress of those immigrants on a pathway to citizenship.
Instead, the bill sets ambitious goals for the Department of Homeland Security to fortify the borders -- including continuous surveillance of 100 percent of the United States border and 90 percent effectiveness of enforcement in several high-risk sectors -- and other domestic enforcement measures over the next 10 years. It provides at least $3 billion to meet those goals.
The bill includes provisions or "triggers," that allow Congress at different points to ensure that the enforcement goals are being met.
On the same day that the group of eight senators continued to iron out details of the bill, thousands of immigration activists who support a path to citizenship for immigrants who are here illegally were converging on Washington for a rally. The activists are pressing Congress to move quickly to pass a broad immigration overhaul, and they are calling for a direct path for illegal immigrants toward becoming Americans.
"We need a clear path to citizenship," said Gustavo Torres, executive director of CASA de Maryland, one of the lead organizers of the rally. "Anything less than that undermines American democracy."
The senators' compromise allows Republican lawmakers, including Senator John McCain of Arizona and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, to say that they succeeded in including border enforcement advances that will be met before any illegal immigrants will apply for permanent resident green cards, the first step toward citizenship. It also allows Democrats to say that the border measures are goals, but they are not roadblocks that could stop the immigrants from reaching the final stage of citizenship.
President Obama, who has been largely silent during the negotiations, is strongly opposed to any hindrances that could be subject to political battles later on.
According to the draft, the legislation would provide $3 billion for the Department of Homeland Security to draw up and carry out a five-year border security plan. Officials must present the plan within six months, and no immigrants can gain any provisional legal status until the plan is in place.
The plan must include how border authorities will move quickly to spread technology across the border to ensure that agents can see along its entire length. The authorities will also have five years to reach 90 percent effectiveness in their operations, a measure based on calculations of what percentage of illegal crossers were caught or turned back without crossing.
Homeland Security officials also have six months to draw up plans to finish any border fencing they deem necessary.
If, after five years, border officials have not reached the surveillance and enforcement goals, the bill creates and finances a border commission, made up of officials from border states and other experts, to help the Department of Homeland Security reach its goals.
Homeland Security officials will also be required to expand a worker verification system, making it mandatory nationwide for all employers within five years. They must also create an electronic exit system to ensure that foreigners leave when their visas expire.
Under the legislation, illegal immigrants who pass background checks and meet other requirements will have to wait in a provisional status for 10 years, during which time they would be allowed to work and travel but not to remain permanently, before they could apply for green cards.
At the end of 10 years, officials must show that the border security plan is operational, the fence is completed, and the worker verification and visa exits systems are operating. At that point, immigrants in provisional status will be allowed to apply for green cards.
On Tuesday, Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat of California who is spearheading a deal on an agricultural worker program, said that she expected to have an agreement between the farm workers and growers within 24 hours. The talks had stalled this month when the labor unions and employers could not agree on the number of workers to allow into the new visa program, and what wage rate to pay the workers.
On Wednesday, a person with knowledge of the discussions said that the workers had offered a cap of 200,000 workers total through 2020, in addition to roughly 50,000 who are already in the existing agricultural guest worker program, known as H-2A. That number, the person added, is "far more generous" than the cap reached under a similar deal between the nation's leading business and labor groups, for a low-skilled worker program.
In terms of wages for agricultural workers, the person added, there is a deal under consideration that offers specific starting wage rates -- divided by region, job type and crop type. If growers and workers cannot agree on fair wages, the senators will probably fall back on a process that takes into account various economic factors and is overseen by the secretaries of agriculture and labor.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.