Saying the political climate may never be better, a bipartisan group of senators, including Florida's Marco Rubio, announced on Monday the framework for the most sweeping attempt at immigration reform in years, including a "tough but fair" path to citizenship for millions of people in the United States illegally.
The effort opened what will likely be a drawn out and emotional debate over an issue that has been difficult to tackle. The last attempt, in 2007, ended in a spectacular collapse.
"Other bipartisan groups of senators have stood in the same spot before, trumpeting similar proposals," said Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., one of eight lawmakers who forged the deal. "But we believe this will be the year Congress finally gets it done. The politics on this issue have been turned upside down. For the first time ever, there is more political risk in opposing immigration reform, than in supporting it."
The group's "principles," which insist additional border enforcement comes first, were delivered a day before President Barack Obama travels to Las Vegas for a speech on immigration.
The president, who promised reform in his first term, said it is a top priority in his second and the White House praised the senators' inclusion of a pathway to citizenship as "a big deal."
Under the plan, citizenship would come only after a person passes criminal background checks, pays fines, learns English and goes through other steps, before going to the back of the line to seek a green card. Opponents instantly decried it as "amnesty."
In addition to Rubio and Schumer, the group includes Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois, Michael Bennet of Colorado and Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Republicans John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.
Their plan, which calls for legislation to be produced by March and passed by the summer, is built on four pillars:
1. Create a tough but fair path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants currently living in the United States that is contingent upon securing our borders and tracking whether legal immigrants have left the country when required.
2. Reform our legal immigration system to better recognize the importance of characteristics that will help build the American economy and strengthen American families.
3. Create an effective employment verification system that will prevent identity theft and end the hiring of future unauthorized workers.
4. Establish an improved process for admitting future workers to serve our nation's workforce needs, while simultaneously protecting all workers.
Border security would include more drones and law enforcement at entry points, and progress would be measured by a commission made up of officials in Southwestern states.
The plan also calls for closer tracking of people who overstay their visas, a significant but often overlooked part of the problem.
The issue's new urgency is driven by a mix of demographics and politics.
Republicans, worried over losing more ground among the fast-grown Hispanic voter base, have quickly shifted after the November election. Democratic-aligned labor unions, which helped defeat the 2007 bill, have been working on business leaders to address concerns. Pressure is also being applied by faith leaders and the law enforcement community.
"The bipartisan support surrounding immigration reform is unlike nearly any other issue facing Congress because people who hold a Bible, wear a badge or own a business want a common-sense immigration system," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. "And today's debate on immigration is fundamentally different from previous reform efforts for exactly the same reason."
The proposal calls for a less arduous path for young immigrants who arrived in the country with their parents, the so called "Dreamers," as well as farm workers "because of the role they play in ensuring that Americans have safe and secure agricultural products to sell and consume."
But most of the 11 million undocumented residents would face a longer process of seeking citizenship. Senators acknowledged they have not thought out many of the details, including the time a person would have to wait.
"It is not going to be an easy process, but it's certainly going to be a fair one and a humane one and one that speaks to our legacy, both as a nation of laws, but also as a nation of immigrants," Rubio said.
Rubio in his 2010 run for Senate said he opposed the 2007 immigration deal and is drawing criticism from the right for his new stance.
Nonetheless, Rubio's involvement with the group is seen as a breakthrough because he is widely admired among Republicans and has helped frame the deal in a way that appeals to conservatives.
McCain, like Rubio, stressed a need to improve border security, though the Obama administration has devoted vast resources to it and the number of people entering from Mexico has dwindled with the slowdown in the U.S. economy.
"What's going on now is unacceptable. In reality, what's been created is a de facto amnesty," said McCain, who played a key role in the failed 2007 immigration overhaul. "We have been too content for too long to allow individuals to mow our lawn, serve our food, clean our homes, and even watch our children, while not affording them any of the benefits that make our country so great."
The more conservative House presents a challenge for passage of any sweeping bill, even as top Republican leaders such as Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, Mitt Romney's running mate, have endorsed reform.
Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, said Monday, "When you legalize those who are in the country illegally, it costs taxpayers millions of dollars, costs American workers thousands of jobs and encourages more illegal immigration. By granting amnesty, the Senate proposal actually compounds the problem by encouraging more illegal immigration."
Contact Alex Leary at [email protected]