Senators outline paths for illegals

| Monday, Jan. 28, 2013, 9:02 p.m.

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of eight prominent senators on Monday laid out an ambitious overhaul of the nation's patchwork immigration system that would balance tougher border enforcement with establishing a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants and new opportunities for seasonal farm workers to gain legal status.

The senators acknowledged pitfalls that have doomed such efforts in the past, but they suggested that November's elections — with Hispanics voting heavily for President Obama and other Democrats — could make this time different.

“Other bipartisan groups of senators have stood in the same spot before, trumpeting similar proposals,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. “But we believe this will be the year Congress finally gets it done. The politics on this issue have been turned upside down,” Schumer said.

“Elections. Elections,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. “The Republican Party is losing the support of our Hispanic citizens.”

Obama got 71 percent of the Latino vote in November compared with 27 percent for Republican Mitt Romney.

The star of the senators' group may have been Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a charismatic Cuban-American who has tied his political fortunes and a potential 2016 White House run to his dramatic life story as the son of political refugees from Fidel Castro.

“I am clearly new to this issue in terms of the Senate,” the first-term senator told reporters during a Capitol Hill news conference. “I'm not new in terms of my life. I live surrounded by immigrants. My neighbors are immigrants. I married into a family of immigrants. I see immigration every single day. I see the good of immigration. I see how important it is for our future.”

Besides the citizenship provision, including new qualifications, the Senate measure would crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants. The plans are still short on detail, and all the senators conceded that months of tedious and politically treacherous negotiations lie ahead, but they hope to propel far-reaching immigration legislation through the Senate by summer.

The bipartisan group, which includes Democrats Dick Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado and Republicans Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona, beat Obama to the punch by a day. The president will outline his own proposal in Nevada, a state with growing numbers of Latinos, on Tuesday.

“It says quite a bit about our nation, about how many people want to come here in this free country with this opportunity for an expanding economy,” Durbin said. “They want to be here in America. But let's be honest about it. ... Our immigration system is broken. It has been broken for a long time.”

President George W. Bush, McCain, Graham and the late Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts led the last major push to pass an immigration overhaul, but it failed in June 2007 after a bitter fight that tied up the Senate for weeks.

The new bipartisan overhaul plan would allow illegal immigrants to obtain a green card only after fulfilling a number of requirements: registering with the government; passing a criminal background check; settling back taxes; and paying a fine for having entered the United States improperly.

If they met the first standards, undocumented immigrants would get in line behind green card applicants pursuing legal residency. They would then have to learn English and U.S. civics, show a record of employment and pass another background check.

The plan has a significant element that was not part of the 2007 initiative: undocumented farm workers who “have been performing very important and difficult work to maintain America's food supply while earning subsistence wages” could earn a path to citizenship through a different and presumably more lenient visa process for agricultural workers.

And the new package would enact most of the long-stalled DREAM Act by providing less onerous requirements for the children of illegal immigrants.

Obama last year enacted parts of the DREAM Act via executive orders, offering deferments on deportation to young adult immigrants and angering Republicans who viewed the measures as political maneuvers aimed at drawing Hispanic voters.

The senators' plan would beef up enforcement with more border agents, increased use of drones and completion of an entry-exit system to track visa holders better. And it would set up a commission of governors, attorneys general and community leaders from border states.

White House press secretary Jay Carney said the senators' proposal contains “principles that mirror the president's blueprint.”

In another sign of potential bipartisan progress, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky each responded positively to the bipartisan plan from their colleagues.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers were among the business groups lining up behind the plan.

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