WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama and a bipartisan group of senators will begin separate but simultaneous efforts next week to build support for an overhaul of immigration laws, an effort that had long stalled in Washington but was pushed to the forefront again during the 2012 presidential campaign.
A bipartisan group of at least six senators with a long-held interest in immigration issues is preparing to release a detailed set of principles next Friday, laying the legislative foundation for what they hope will become a comprehensive immigration bill. Their initiative coincides with a similar push by the White House. On Friday, the president met with congressional Hispanic Caucus members, calling the issue "a top legislative priority," and he is set to give an immigration-focused speech Tuesday in Nevada, where Hispanic voters are growing in numbers.
The Senate proposal will probably include four main elements: border enforcement, employer enforcement, handling the future flow of legal immigration (including temporary agriculture workers and high-skilled engineers) and a pathway to citizenship for the more than 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country. Mr. Obama's approach will largely echo his 2011 immigration "blueprint," which he first outlined in a speech in El Paso, Texas, and also calls for citizenship pathway for those illegally here.
Although all members of the Senate group agree that some pathway to legal residency must be a part of the final proposal, they are still divided on exactly what that route should be. Republican lawmakers are urging that border security be tied to a citizenship pathway, along with other requirements, such as having those who entered illegally go to the back of the line -- behind immigrants waiting to enter the country legally -- as well as paying fines and back taxes and learning English.
"You've got border security, you've got employer verification, and you've got a temporary worker program that addresses the magnet. So those three things have to go together to address operational control over your border," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., one of the senators mapping out the legislation. "Then you go to the next big thing -- the 12 million. How do you deal with the 12 million in a firm, fair way, realizing you can't put them all in jail, and they're not all going to self-deport?"
The bipartisan group, which has been meeting regularly since the November election, includes Mr. Graham; Democratic Sens. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Charles E. Schumer of New York; and Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Marco Rubio of Florida. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Republican Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Mike Lee of Utah have also taken part in the discussions.
Aides said the group hopes to have legislation ready by the end of March and is aiming for a Senate vote before the August recess. Although Republicans talked about handling immigration overhaul in steps, the senators' working group is aiming for a comprehensive bill.
Mr. Rubio, who has been promoting his own set of principles, was approached by the group in December, said a Republican close to him. But it was unclear until recently whether he would join the bipartisan team or offer his own proposal.
In 2010, Mr. Graham and Mr. Schumer outlined a framework for immigration overhaul in a Washington Post op-ed. It is now being used as a starting point for the group's efforts.
The 2012 election, in which Mr. Obama beat Republican Mitt Romney with the help of 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, has also proved a galvanizing force for the GOP. "Because of the mood of the country that it's time to move forward on this issue, it's different than it was some years ago," Mr. McCain said. "The election results always have an effect on that."
Both Democratic and Republican advocates for immigration changes are hoping that the White House will delay releasing any specific plan of its own to allow a bipartisan bill to emerge from the Senate.