Immigration plan promises to end 'living in shadows'
A woman takes the oath of allegiance Monday during a naturalization ceremony in Newark, N.J.
Miriam Bilaih shows off her U.S. citizen naturalization document Monday after a naturalization ceremony in Irving, Texas.
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WASHINGTON -- Some of the Senate's most powerful Republicans and Democrats are pushing a sweeping overhaul of immigration law that would immediately give 11 million illegal immigrants the right to stay in the United States and work while they apply for full citizenship.
The immigration proposal unveiled Monday by eight prominent senators also would tighten borders, create an employment verification system and punish employers who hire illegal immigrants.
President Barack Obama is expected to outline his own immigration proposal in a speech today in Las Vegas. His remarks, according to the White House's announcement of the trip, will focus on "the need to fix our broken immigration system so it is fair and helps grow our middle class and it ensures everyone is playing by the same rules."
The senators' announcement comes as a bipartisan group of House members is also working on an immigration proposal. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said last week that they "basically have an agreement."
The senators' framework calls for a process to legalize the status of immigrants who pass criminal background checks, pay fines and learn English and basic American history. The pathway to citizenship would not be put into place until borders are secure. However, the legislation would provide immediate amnesty for illegal immigrants already in this country.
"Once the bill passes, people who are here living in the shadows would get a legal right to stay and work," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. "Their ability to stay here and work and stay in America and not be deported and harassed comes virtually immediately."
That will make it easier for them to learn English and integrate into their communities without fear, he told reporters.
The plan is expected to be a starting point for debate expected to occupy Congress in the spring.
Immigration is one of the few major policy areas where there appears to be room for compromise. The desire to move forward on overhauling immigration appears inspired, at least in part, by the important role Hispanic voters played in propelling President Barack Obama to a second term.
"The Republican Party is losing support of our Hispanic citizens ... and this is a pre-eminent issue for those citizens," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
That provides a window of opportunity to reach a compromise on the wedge issue.
"Other bipartisan groups of senators have stood in the same spot before, trumpeting similar proposals, but we believe this will be the year Congress finally gets it done," Mr. Schumer said. "The politics on this issue have been turned upside down. For the first time ever there's more political risk in opposing immigration reform than in supporting it."
Mr. McCain said the proposal shuts off the magnet that attracts illegal workers and puts in place a pathway that lets people enter legally.
"What's going on now is unacceptable. In reality, what's been created is a de facto amnesty," he said during a news conference Monday. "We've 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. I think everyone agrees that it's not beneficial for our country to have these people here hidden in the shadows."
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said it's important to ensure that an overhauled system discourages people from entering illegally while it recognizes that 11 million undocumented immigrants already reside in this country.
Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.; Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.; Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; Robert Mendez, D-N.J.; and Michael Bennet, D-Colo., rounded out the bipartisan group that agreed to the immigration blueprint over the weekend.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the president welcomes the senators' plan.
Mr. Carney called the bipartisan proposal "a big deal" and "an important development."
April Mellody, spokeswoman for Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., said overhauling immigration is a complex challenge and that her boss believes immigration policy must be tough, practical and fair.
"While he has just begun to review this latest proposal, he believes that any time you have Republicans and Democrats working across the aisle to come to a bipartisan consensus on a tough problem, that is a positive development," she said.
Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., said he could not yet comment on the specifics of the proposal but said the nation "has to do something to fix a broken system." Whatever package ultimately is approved should expand the ability of foreign students to obtain work visas, he said.
That's just what Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., are proposing in a separate bill.
Their legislation would increase the number of visas available to highly educated foreign nationals sponsored by employers offering them jobs in specialized professions.
Currently, H-1B visas are capped at 85,000 a year. That cap initially would change to 115,000 under the Hatch-Klobuchar bill, and that limit could rise if demand warrants.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said there is a crucial need for overhauling immigration and that he hopes for an open debate in the spring.
"All members must have an opportunity to debate and amend any legislation that comes to the floor," he said in a written statement. "This effort is too important to be written in a back room and sent to the floor with a take-it-or-leave-it approach."
Mr. Carney said the senators' announcement of a bipartisan plan is a significant step but that many details remain to be ironed out.
"This is an important first step that we've seen from Congress. We need to continue the movement," Mr. Obama's spokesman told reporters Monday.
He said that the president believes overhauling immigration responsibly will help the economy, increase fairness to the middle class and level the playing field for businesses.
"All would be healthy for our economy and healthy for job creation," Mr. Carney said.
First Published January 29, 2013 12:00 am