A powerful group of senators from both parties has reached a deal on the outlines of a comprehensive immigration overhaul, a development that will drive an emotional debate on a hot-button issue unseen in Washington for more than half a decade.
The group is expected to unveil the basics of its proposal at a Monday news conference on Capitol Hill, essentially laying down a marker on the issue one day before President Barack Obama heads to Las Vegas to unveil more details about his own immigration proposal.
According to a five-page document provided to POLITICO, the sweeping proposal -- agreed to in principle by eight senators -- would seek to overhaul the legal immigration system as well as create a pathway to citizenship for the nation's roughly 11 million illegal immigrants. But establishing that pathway would depend on whether the U.S. first implements stricter border enforcement measures and new rules ensuring immigrants have left the country in compliance with their visas. Young people brought to the country as children illegally and seasonal agriculture industry workers would be given a faster path to citizenship.
The broad agreement by the influential Gang of Eight senators amounts to the most serious bipartisan effort to act on the highly charged issue since George W. Bush's comprehensive measure was defeated in the Senate in 2007.
It remains to be seen if Obama will embrace the Senate effort, or how closely his own proposal hews to the Senate one. But the Senate proposal is expected to take precedence on Capitol Hill, given that bipartisan backing will be crucial to getting anything through the Democratic-controlled Senate -- let alone the Republican-controlled House.
The bipartisan coalition includes influential Democrats such as Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois and Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, No. 3 in the leadership. It also has the backing of Sen. Bob Menendez, the Cuban-American Democrat from New Jersey poised to be chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. And it has the support of Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, the new chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Republican heavy-hitters also have signed onto the deal's framework, including two veterans of the bruising 2007 effort: Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. But it also won the support of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a rising GOP star and possible future presidential candidate. And the freshman Arizona Republican, Jeff Flake, who endorsed similar comprehensive plans during his House tenure, has also backed the proposal.
House Republicans are likely to be a tougher sell, but Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) recently endorsed Rubio's approach and could be an important partner in selling the legislation to conservatives.
Many of the details have yet to be worked out since the plan has not yet been turned into legislation. There are bound to be fights within the group and off Capitol Hill as the legislative process begins in earnest, and it's unclear whether the bipartisan group can stick together.
Despite the obstacles, supporters of the effort believe the post-2012 election environment offers a better chance for a comprehensive immigration deal. The plan would also seek an overhaul of the legal immigration system to attract highly skilled workers in the scientific and technological fields. It would add tougher measures aimed at forcing employers to ensure they're hiring legal workers, while adding new provisions designed to attract lower-skilled migrant workers, including agricultural laborers who tend to work seasonally.
A number of prominent Republicans and conservatives have shifted their stance on the issue of "amnesty" -- or a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants -- in the aftermath of the two presidential elections in which the GOP took a pounding from Hispanic voters.
Rubio, in particular, has been selling to conservative commentators the idea of giving the nation's illegal immigrants a pathway to legal status, and he's won some early backing from the right. That has helped pave the way for the latest effort, according to the group's participants, though Democrats have called for a more direct pathway to citizenship.
"Look at the last election," McCain said on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday. "We are losing dramatically the Hispanic vote, which we think should be ours, for a variety of reasons, and we've got to understand that.
"Second of all, this -- we can't go on forever with 11 million people living in this country in the shadows in an illegal status," McCain said. "We cannot forever have children who were born here -- who were brought here by their parents when they were small children to live in the shadows, as well. So I think the time is right."
Before a pathway to citizenship can happen, the group says that new border security measures first must take effect, including an increase in the number of unmanned aerial vehicles and agents at the border, new rules for tracking people entering the country on temporary visas and the creation of a commission of southwestern political and community leaders to ensure the new enforcement mechanisms take effect.
As those security measures take effect, the proposal says, illegal immigrants would be forced to register with the government, undergo a background check, and pay a fine and back taxes so they can obtain a legal status on a probationary basis. That would allow them to live and work legally in the United States, unless they have committed serious crimes, which could subject them to deportation. Those who have obtained probationary legal status would not be allowed to access federal benefits.
After the enforcement measures take effect, those who have obtained their probationary legal status would be required to undergo a series of requirements -- including learning English and civics and undergoing further background checks -- before being able to obtain permanent residency. The proposal insists that those who have entered the country illegally would not get preferential treatment over legal immigrants playing by the rules.
The only exceptions would be made for seasonal agricultural workers as well as young individuals who unknowingly entered the country illegally as children in a move similar to the DREAM Act proposal that has stalled in Congress for years.
"Now, often the devil is in the details," Schumer said at a news conference in New York on Sunday. "Our goal, once we get our principles, is to sit down and negotiate a bill. That is often difficult. How is the path to citizenship? How does it work? Marco Rubio has been quite clear that he doesn't want people to jump ahead of the line, ahead of others who have waited patiently in their own countries and haven't crossed the border against the law. We'll have to work all that out."
Indeed, there are several other thorny issues that still need to be resolved, including the number of green cards that should be provided to shape the future flow of immigrants as well as a new electronic-verification system aimed at discouraging employers from knowingly hiring illegal immigrants.
Nevertheless, members of the group are optimistic that a deeply divided Congress can come together over the issue this year.
"We have virtually been going maybe 25 years without a clear statement about immigration policy," Durbin said on "Fox News Sunday.""That's unacceptable in this nation of immigrants."
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