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The Immigration Bill's Chances In Congress


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Celeste Headlee in Washington. Neal Conan is away. Though the Gang of Eight has postponed the full, public unveiling of their immigration bill until tomorrow, the rollout began in earnest over the weekend with Republican Senator Marco Rubio making the rounds on Sunday talk shows.

The bipartisan Senate group working on the legislation has now released a summary of the bill, 17 pages that gives us a clue to what they're planning. Senators Charles Schumer and John McCain will brief President Obama this afternoon. Key to their proposal is enhanced border security, a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented workers already in the U.S. and changes to the existing legal immigration process.

If you have questions about what's in this Senate immigration bill, our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is Or simply go to our website,, and then click on TALK OF THE NATION. We have the people here that can answer your questions.

Later on the program, lessons from Boston on tweeting during a tragedy. But first the bipartisan immigration plan from the Senate's Gang of Eight. Joining me here in Studio 3A is USA Today's Alan Gomez. Welcome.

ALAN GOMEZ: How are you doing?

HEADLEE: And on the line from NPR studios here in Washington is Ron Elving. Welcome to you, as well, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Celeste.

HEADLEE: Alan, let's begin where the Gang of Eight began. It looks as though all of these other plans in terms of paths to citizenship don't actually happen until enhanced border security happens. Is - are we reading that right?

GOMEZ: Right. The first thing that happens after this bill is passed, if this bill is passed, the Department of Homeland Security will have six months to develop a strategy to fully secure the border. Then once they've developed that plan, then the 11 million unauthorized immigrants can apply to become temporary - for a temporary legal status.

That's something that's going to last about six years. They can renew again. And then after 10 years, if all these border security enhancements are made, they can then apply for their green cards and eventually U.S. citizenship.

HEADLEE: So the minimum amount of time would be 10 years before somebody who was here illegally could become a U.S. citizen.

GOMEZ: Thirteen, 10 years...

HEADLEE: Thirteen years.

GOMEZ: Or 10 years to get your green card and then three years more to get citizenship. And there are some provisions for young, unauthorized immigrants who were brought here when they were young, they can get a little bit - they can get their green cards a little bit faster, same thing for some folks who have worked in the agriculture industry. They can get theirs a little bit quicker. But for the majority of these 11 million, it'll be 10 years before they can get their green card, 13 years before they become - can become U.S. citizens.

HEADLEE: Let's not move away from border security quite yet. They've allocated in this plan from the Gang of Eight, they've allocated billions. How much are they putting towards security?

GOMEZ: At the very least $4.5 billion and eventually could reach $7 billion. That's going to go to border patrol agents. They're calling for about 3,500 more border patrol agents down on that southwest border. It requires more fencing along the border, it requires more unmanned aerial vehicles, drones, radar technology, surveillance technology, just all these things to just continue building up that presence down there so that, you know, we don't have further waves of illegal immigration.

I mean, that's one of the concerns from the 1986 bill, the last time - the last big immigration bill we got. Folks were legalized, but the border security component wasn't fixed, and obviously - and we've seen these waves of illegal immigrants coming across.

And so now what we're seeing is this emphasis, Republicans especially on board with this, need that. They need to be able to say that once and for all we're going to secure this border if we're going to go on this path towards legalizing these folks who are here illegally.

HEADLEE: Well, let me take this to you, then, Ron Elving. As Alan Gomez is suggesting is that the whole purpose behind this border security is just to get it passed by conservatives?

ELVING: You know, it's tempting to go there. I don't think that we could quite be that absolute about it. It is a substantial amount of money; it will buy a lot of new hardware; it will put a lot of new people to work on the border trying to guarantee that the flow of immigrants will be reduced. It is a larger commitment of muscle than we saw with the 1986 law. That was the Alan Simpson-Romano Mazzoli law, Simpson-Mazzoli as it was called at the time.

And Alan is absolutely right: It was sold at the time as the end of illegal immigration because we were going to legalize all these people, and we were going to grant amnesty, and in those days it was not quite the killer term that it has been in more recent arguments about immigration. And we were going to, frankly, give amnesty to these people, and that was going to end illegal immigration because we were going to get so much tougher on the border.

Now that was more attitudinal, perhaps, there wasn't quite as much muscle, there wasn't quite as much money. And so in fact we did not get the border security or anything approaching it that was envisioned in 1986. I think probably at that time there was a presumption that the attraction of immigration to the United States would not be supposedly that much greater than it had been prior to 1986 and that this kind of balance would work.

Well, what we saw in the subsequent 25 years was a tremendous spike in the attractiveness of coming to the United States for many immigrants, and as a result, that whole balance broke down. Now will it break down again? It's possible. There are large global economic factors that suggest that perhaps we would not see that kind of spike in future flows. But as you suggest, you're not going to get conservative Republican senators on board unless there's an awful lot of that muscle to make sure that this isn't another 1986 kind of compromise.

And if you look at that 17-page summary that you mentioned a moment ago, Celeste, it goes on for pages and pages before it gets to anything about legalization, and all of the early stuff is about border security.

HEADLEE: Yeah, and lots of numbers we don't necessarily have to get into right now. But let me bring this back to you, Alan, because there are also - once we finally do get to, you know, legal status, there are all kinds of different timelines for different people. There's a different timeline if you're an agricultural worker as opposed to somebody who's in computing and may want to go to Microsoft, as opposed to if you are what's called a DREAMer, a child who was brought here by your parents.

Or importantly, and I think significantly, there's also a path to legalization for those parents who may have been deported. Explain to me how all these different timelines would work should this bill get passed.

GOMEZ: How much time do you have?


HEADLEE: Five minutes, Alan.

GOMEZ: It's - you laid out some of the basics there. I mean, the ones who are going to be able to be legalized the most quickly are, like you said, the DREAMers, the kids who were brought here as children. There's always been sort of more of a moral argument with them, that, you know, they weren't the ones that made the decision to come here. So they're going to have a much quicker path to their green cards.

Agricultural workers, you know, there are estimates right now that up to 50 percent of the field labor in this country is done by unauthorized immigrants. So if, you know, tomorrow you were to say OK, everybody's got to check the immigration status of your workers, the agriculture industry would just be crippled.

So they're allowing - and this is all - and even this, it gets into a sort of a sliding scale. The more hours you've put in over the past few years, the quicker you'll be able to get your residency...

HEADLEE: And a green card.

GOMEZ: And a green card, exactly. So those - they would have the quickest path. Then the next wave we get are, you know, all these parents who have...

HEADLEE: Relatives of...

GOMEZ: Relatives of - right, once you can apply to become - to get that temporary legal status, you can then petition for your wife and for your children to do so, as well.

HEADLEE: OK, let me interrupt you for a second because we have a question about this very thing in terms of visa program changes from Kevin(ph) in Buffalo, New York. Your question, Kevin?

KEVIN: Yeah, I'm a computer programmer, and so I was very curious about if there's - since there was the focus on illegal immigration, if there was changes to the H1-B program as part of this bill, also.

HEADLEE: Good question. Kevin from - from Kevin in Buffalo, New York. Alan, what's the answer there?

GOMEZ: Kevin, there are huge changes. The H1-B visas he's referring to, those go primarily to college-educated foreigners in the so-called STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Currently the cap on that that the U.S. puts is 85,000 visas a year. Silicon Valley, a lot of companies like that, have been arguing against that, trying to raise that cap for years.

This bill would raise that eventually up to 205,000. Beyond that, there are other changes to the legal immigration system that heavily favor people with master's degrees, people who display extraordinary ability in certain areas like science, physics, entertainment in some cases, but a lot that really are targeted for that high-tech sector.

There's also a lot of - there are increases for lower-skilled jobs and like we talked about for agricultural. But this has been one of the big, one of the big components of this. Republicans, both sides have agreed that they need to bring in more of this foreign labor in the high-tech fields, and this definitely represents that.

HEADLEE: All right, we are answering your questions at 800-989-8255. This is Al(ph) in Houston, Texas. Al, what's your question.

AL: Basically, my - I'm from Jamaica, well I was born in Jamaica, but I'm a naturalized U.S. citizen. My parents still live in Jamaica, and as it is right now, I could file for them to come to the States, and they'd be I guess green card holders (unintelligible) and stuff but not the kind of jobs, you say, engineering or science but really clerical jobs or, you know, stuff like that.

So my parents are concerned that, you know, with this new immigration law, maybe I won't be able to file for them and bring them over to the States.

HEADLEE: That's a good question there. Is this something that you can answer? Ron, will this change the way that American citizens can bring in relatives?

ELVING: I believe that it does. It gives them an opportunity to apply. But as Alan was saying earlier, there are still a lot of restrictions applying to that, and there is still a certain time period that has to be observed. But part of the idea here is that family reunification would be honored and that family reunification would be a value that the Republicans who are signing on to this bill would be able to advertise in talking about what they have done for the Hispanic community, not only Hispanics but all forms of immigrants, all immigrants from all different countries.

HEADLEE: And Ron, another thing that appears to be trying to appeal to conservatives of any stripe in Congress is the fact that they're trying to put real emphasis on, as Alan was mentioning, people with high education, people with a lot of skills but also people who are entrepreneurs that may want to start a business and employ Americans, right?

ELVING: That is correct, and people who have studied and gotten those degrees in sciences and technology, mathematics, at American universities would also have an advantage here. About 40 percent of the employment-based visas would be allocated to professionals who have advanced degrees and work in the United States in the sciences, arts and professions, and that includes people who do have medical degrees from foreign schools.

But there is a real emphasis on enabling people to come to school here, go to school here, and stay here to practice their highly technical skills.

HEADLEE: We're talking about the new immigration bill with Alan Gomez of USA Today and Ron Elving, NPR's senior Washington editor. We'll be back in a moment. If you have questions about what is in this Senate immigration bill from the Gang of Eight, give us a call with your questions, 800-989-8255. You can email us at We'll be back with a view from Arizona after a short break. I'm Celeste Headlee. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


HEADLEE: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. The coming debate in Washington over the Senate immigration bill will certainly be closely watched by the people of Arizona. Arizona Senator John McCain has helped lead the Gang of Eight to this compromise, including measures to beef up security along the southwestern border as a precursor to any sort of legal path to status for undocumented workers.

We're going to talk - have more from the border in just a minute. First, though, if you have questions about what is in this Senate immigration bill, now is your time to ask them. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is Or go to the website,, and then click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Alan Gomez is immigration reporter for USA Today, and NPR's Ron Elving is also our guest. And joining us now is Ted Robbins. He's a correspondent on NPR's national desk correspondent based in Tucson, and he joins us from his office there. Welcome to the discussion, Ted.


HEADLEE: So let's talk about the challenges at the Arizona border. What do things look like if you take a drive along the border there?

ROBBINS: Well, and we can actually broaden it out from Arizona along the whole southwest border. I mean, if you take a drive - in populated areas, there are tall fences, which range anywhere from, gee, triple fencing near the San Diego line to some vehicle barriers out in some desert areas.

But when you get close to the cities, you have fencing, which has frankly proven effective in Nogales, San Diego, El Paso, in terms of cutting down on illegal crossing. When you get farther out in the desert, there are no fences.

HEADLEE: Yeah, I was in Arizona for a long period of time. There's also a lot of skepticism about some of these fences and border security, that it's impossible to really secure the entire border. What's the reaction, do you think, of voters there to the idea of billions of dollars of more drones, more fencing, more officers?

ROBBINS: Well, I can't really speak to what the reaction is going to be to voters. It depends on who goes to the polls. You can almost see in this 17-page document, you can almost sense who wrote what. But so let's go - if you go to the top of it, as you pointed out and as Alan pointed out, the first part of this is what they're calling the comprehensive southern border security strategy, and then separately the southern border fencing strategy.

And what it demands is first that the border patrol figure out who's crossing and then that within five years it catch 90 percent of those people crossing. And I don't know people who have been out there who think that fencing is going to accomplish that.

So what you've got now, and there's been a greatly increased dependence on aerial surveillance: drones, there's some technology that's been used in Afghanistan which now indicates that they're catching - this is only tested so far, this is not in broad use - that they're catching about 50 percent of those crossing.

So you're looking at more - this sort of really says you're looking at more of the same.

HEADLEE: So let me take this to you, Ron. All of this discussion of security, including in some cases very complicated and difficult paths to citizenship, they're, I assume, meant to avoid that term of amnesty, that there's no idea that we're just going to hand citizenship over to people. Is that going to make this easier to pass?

ELVING: There does not seem to be the kind of resistance to this law that we have seen in recent years. You know, in the second term of George W. Bush, John McCain and a number of his allies brought a comprehensive immigration overhaul bill to the floor of the Senate, and the president was ready to sign it, and they could not pass it in Congress because of this term amnesty that was so widely disseminated and believed that essentially all that was being done was to allow everyone who is in the country illegally to simply become legal and eventually perhaps become a citizen.

Even the idea of legalization without a path to citizenship was considered to be so controversial or so offensive to many Americans, who said why are they being rewarded for breaking our laws, this rule-of-law notion and a no great nation has ever remained great failing to control its own borders. Those kinds of arguments were quite dispositive in the Senate of the second term of George W. Bush. And that law was not passed.

That became a campaign issue, to some degree, in 2008 but particularly in 2012. If you go back to the debates among the Republican candidates in 2012, there was a great deal of competition among several of them to be the most anti-legalization, the most anti-illegal immigration among the candidates, and of course Mitt Romney famously made a reference to telling people that they could self-deport.

That came back to hurt him in the fall, when he got less than 30 percent of the vote among Latinos, less than 30 percent of the vote among Asian-Americans. And those two groups together were 13 percent of the overall vote, and that was more than enough to tip the result to Barack Obama.

So Republicans have kind of gotten religion on this recently. They are much more willing to talk about a comprehensive immigration overhaul. And there have not been any threats that I am aware of of a filibuster against this bill that the Gang of Eight are bringing forward this week in the Senate.

Now you'll note that there have been threats about a filibuster on the gun law, and while those were initially overcome, we are not sure that the later efforts at a filibuster against that bill will not be successful. So it's really quite a stark contrast between the way they're treating the gun law and the way they're treating the immigration proposals.

HEADLEE: Well, we have a whole lot of questions from our listeners. You can call us with your questions at 800-989-8255. Let's try to answer some of this. This is Sean(ph) in Louisville, Kentucky. Sean, what's your question?

SEAN: Thanks for having me. I just had a quick question about how contingent this pathway to citizenship is upon the border security. Like for example in 10 years, let's say whoever's overseeing this border security says that the border's not secure enough, is there any safeguard these people who are already on this path have to continuing down that path in a reasonable time, or is it really just up to kind of the political whims of Congress at the time to determine whether the border is secure enough to allow them to become citizens?

HEADLEE: That's a good question, thank you Sean in Kentucky. Alan?

GOMEZ: Very good question, and this has been one of the toughest things that they've had to negotiate. How you measure whether the border is secure, as Ted was talking about, has been a very difficult thing. They've worked on this for years. Homeland Security has tried to devise a new metric for several years. Now, it's very difficult.

What they did here, there is no hard measurement that needs to be reached before these folks can apply to become legal residents, to become - to get their green card.

HEADLEE: No hard measurement in security?

GOMEZ: In security, exactly. What they do is they establish goals. As Ted was saying, they have to monitor - they have to be able to monitor 100 percent of the border and intercept...

HEADLEE: In the high-risk areas.

GOMEZ: No, actually monitor 100 percent of the entire border and intercept 90 percent of people trying to cross in these high-risk sectors like Tucson.

HEADLEE: That's a high mark.

GOMEZ: It's a very high mark, but what happens is if Homeland Security doesn't reach that mark, in five years, a border security commission is established, and that is comprised of the four border-state governors, political appointees from both parties. They are given an additional $2 billion to try to rectify the problem. They have to develop a strategy, implement the strategy, and as long as some other things are brought online like a federal eVerify program to ensure that all businesses are checking new employees for their immigration status, and an entry-exit visa program is established, if all these things are just put in place, they can go forward on the road to getting their green cards.

HEADLEE: All right, well, let's take a question here. It's all very interesting. But there are so many ifs and variables here, it's hard to know what we're getting answers to. Brian(ph) in Denver, Colorado, has a question. Brian, what's your question?

BRIAN: My question is this: My wife is a U.K. national, and it took us over two years to go through the legal green card process, and it was obvious to me that the Immigration Department is completely understaffed. And in fact they've subbed out a lot of that. Is there any funding in this bill to increase the number of employees who will actually be processing all this paperwork and all this bureaucratic effort that needs to happen for all of these pieces to come together?

HEADLEE: That is a great question, Brian. Is that something you can answer, Ron?

ELVING: I can't really answer that question directly. I do believe that the sequestration process, for example, is showing us the vulnerabilities of a lot of federal agencies, and that is almost surely going to include the federal agencies that are asked to administer anything under this particular bill.

Sequestration is probably going to be with us more or less indefinitely, parts of it at least, not only past this September, but the kinds of decreases in federal capability in a lot of these agencies and departments is probably going to be a rolling phenomenon going forward, beyond this fiscal year.

So if it is already difficult for some of these agencies to handle some of the cases, such as the caller cites, it's hard to imagine it getting much better. You'll notice that most of the funding in this bill is going to things that are directly related to border security, not to smoothing or easing the process of taking care of the people who are applying for green cards or other steps along the process of status in this bill.

ROBBINS: Celeste...

HEADLEE: Yeah. Ted.

ROBBINS: ...this is Ted. I did not see it in the 17 pages anywhere. And I did see - as Ron said, it was mostly for security. I did note that there's going to be coordination asked between the Department of Homeland Security, the Social Security Administration and the Labor Department for all these employer verification items. So it looks to me like there's more integrated bureaucracy rather than streamlining of it.


ELVING: Absolutely.

HEADLEE: ...thank you, Ted. That's great. Let's take another quick question here. This is Billy in Lafayette, Colorado. Billy, what's your question?

BILLY: My question is when they spoke earlier about the undocumented kids that came in with their parents...

HEADLEE: The DREAMers, yeah.

BILLY: there a path or a shorter path if they are - if they join the military? And I guess the other question I have is, you know, based on the Gang of Eight, are there any women in that Gang of Eight?

HEADLEE: That's an excellent question. I like Billy in Lafayette, Colorado. Alan, I'm going to let you be on both of those.

GOMEZ: On your last question, no, there are not.

HEADLEE: Predictably.


GOMEZ: So that's an easy one. Before that, the DREAMer path, they - I think they're pretty much set in stone. I mean, it's - within five years, you can apply for your green card and then immediately...

HEADLEE: Regardless of military service.

GOMEZ: ...and then immediately apply for U.S. citizenship. So they have a much quicker path. And if I could just get to the previous point earlier, this is part of the difficulty of discussing something when they've given us a very detailed summary, but not the actual bill itself just yet.


GOMEZ: They're supposed to be filing that sometime today. But in talking to some aides that were working on this, there is funding for 75 additional judges each year into immigration courts to help reduce that backlog. And the processing fees that are going to be associated with filing for all of these different new components are going to go to adding funding to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency responsible for handling all this.

HEADLEE: Right. Although they're also adding bureaucracy and...

GOMEZ: Exactly. As you said. Right.

HEADLEE: All right. So let's get to another question because we have a lot here. I'm going to field as many as I possibly can. This is a call from Rick in Palo Alto, California. Rick, what is your question?

RICK: Hi. Yeah, I wanted to ask about what sort of happened to the proposals that Republicans were making around December about green cards for STEM graduate students, you know? I have a lot of friends from school who basically - you know, they take this H1B thing almost like indentured servitude. They don't want to go work for one of these big, boring tech companies.

They'd rather go work for somebody else's startup, but they sort of have to put in their five years of H1B time in order to get the, you know, the green card. So, you know, it seems to work out really well for the big tech companies, but I don't know that it works out really well for people who don't want to work at the big tech companies but want to be citizens.

HEADLEE: Right. OK. That's a good question from Rick in Palo Alto. Now, we already talked about preference given to people who wanted to start a business and employ Americans in the United States. But, Ron, what about the other part of his question? What happened to that proposal giving preference to people who are in STEM services, in STEM areas?

ELVING: Well, there's going to be some preference for people in STEM areas. But the caller is correct that the interests of some of the big tech companies are being served here, perhaps more than the interests of some of the workers they're interested in hiring.

I think the presumption is that the opportunity to be here and to work for some of those big tech companies should be sufficient from their standpoint. Plus, they're not really the lobbying force that the big tech companies are. The big corporations that have used technology to push forward the frontiers of science and all the things that we can do with computers today have a rather large, growing and effective presence in Washington.

HEADLEE: Yeah. OK. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And we have a question here from Fatima in Denver, Colorado. Fatima, are you there? What's your question?

FATIMA: Yes, I am. It's all well and good that they're doing all this stuff for illegal immigration, but what of the legal immigration? What are they doing about that? For example, I have two sisters in London who can contribute to the economy in a very positive way: One is in banking, the other is in advertising. And to date, I've been waiting for seven years to get them over to the country legally.

HEADLEE: All right. So there's a question for you here, and it's a little frustrated with how long that it takes. Thank you so much for your call, Fatima. Alan, what's the answer here?

GOMEZ: Believe it or not, there are several components to this.


GOMEZ: Going forward, one of the things that they're doing is eliminating the ability for U.S. citizens to petition for siblings to come over. So in the...

HEADLEE: Limiting in terms of limiting the number of people who can get citizenship that way.

GOMEZ: Eliminating that possibility.

HEADLEE: They're eliminating it.

GOMEZ: Yeah. Now it's going to be just strictly immediate relatives, so your kids, your parents. So that - and your spouses, excuse me. So that's going to be a problem in the future. For those already in the pipeline, I understand that it's not going to affect them.

And like we've been discussing, I think they're trying to increase the number of judges, of caseworkers at USCIS to try to speed up that - those processes to bring these wait times down because, you know, the caller's problem is one that's repeated by so many Americans.

I mean, these wait times are 10, 20 years sometimes to bring your relatives into the country. So they're aware of the need to kind of speed that up, and they're trying to bolster Citizenship and Immigration Services so that they can process those more quickly.

HEADLEE: All right. We only have a couple of minutes left. I want to get at least one more question answered here. Teodoro(ph) in Austin, Texas, what's your question?

TEODORO: Yes. Thank you for taking my call. I am a truck driver. I am a Mexican truck driver working for a U.S. trucking company under the rule of cabotage. Are you going to include truck drivers on that position?

And then I have a comment. This problem is a good thing, but it's not going to end the illegal immigration problem until the day the U.S. asks the Mexican government to shut down the Southern border on Mexico. The Mexican (unintelligible), but it's a wide-open door to illegal immigrants from...


TEODORO: ...Central America and the rest of the world.

HEADLEE: OK. Good point there. So what's the answer to his question about whether or not, as a Mexican truck driver working for a U.S. company, would he also get preference?

GOMEZ: For long as other folks on - they are mostly focused on high-tech workers and specifically on agricultural workers, but what they've done in this bill is also open up a, what they're calling a W visa which is specifically tailored to people who are going to be working things like retail, construction, hospitality. It's what they refer to as lower skilled jobs. There is going to be a component for that. They're going to open up, eventually, up to 200,000 visas a year for those kind of workers.

HEADLEE: And again, if this passes - so Ron, in 30 seconds, the chances this bill in - when we finally get it - well, all we have is a summary, will pass through Congress and gets signed by the President?

ELVING: I believe it will pass the Senate. I believe it will need a lot of help in the House where Speaker Boehner is going to have to be willing to ignore the rule that says a majority of Republicans must report something before it comes to the floor. He's going to need Democratic votes to pass it, but if he does bring it to the floor with those Democratic votes, it will pass and yes, the president will sign it.

HEADLEE: That's Ron Elving, senior Washington editor for NPR News joining us from here in Washington. Alan Gomez is immigration reporter for USA Today. He joined me in studio 3A. And Ted Robbins with the national desk for NPR, joined us by the ISDN from his office in Tucson. Thank you so much to all three of you.

ROBBINS: Thank you.

GOMEZ: Thank you, Celeste.

ELVING: You're welcome. Thank you.

HEADLEE: When disasters unfold in a modern area, eyewitnesses follow it on social media. We give you tips on how to sift through all the information that you get. Stay with us. I'm Celeste Headlee. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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