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Senators offer bipartisan deal on immigration laws

  • Article by: JULIA PRESTON
  • New York Times
  • January 28, 2013 - 6:07 AM

A bipartisan group of senators has agreed on a set of principles for a sweeping overhaul of the immigration system, including a pathway to U.S. citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants that would hinge on progress in securing the borders and ensuring that foreigners leave the country when their visas expire.

The senators were able to reach a deal by incorporating the Democrats' insistence on a single comprehensive bill that would not deny eventual citizenship to illegal immigrants, with Republican demands that strong border and interior enforcement had to be clearly in place before Congress could consider legal status for illegal immigrants.

Their blueprint, set to be unveiled Monday, will allow them to stake out their position one day before President Obama outlines his immigration proposals in a speech Tuesday in Las Vegas, in the opening moves of what lawmakers expect will be a protracted and contentious debate in Congress this year.

Lawmakers said they are optimistic that the political mood had changed since a similar effort collapsed in acrimony in 2010. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of the negotiators, said he saw "a new appreciation" among Republicans of the need for an overhaul.

"Look at the last election," McCain said Sunday on ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos." "We are losing dramatically the Hispanic vote, which we think should be ours." The senator also said he had seen "significant improvements" in border enforcement, although he said that "we've still got a ways to go."

He added, "We can't go on forever with 11 million people living in this country in the shadows in an illegal status."

Group of eight

According to a five-page draft of the plan obtained by the New York Times on Sunday, the eight senators -- including McCain, Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. -- have agreed to address the failings of the immigration system in one comprehensive measure, rather than in smaller pieces, and to offer a "tough, fair and practical road map" that would eventually lead to a chance at citizenship for nearly all illegal immigrants.

"We on the Democratic side have said that we are flexible and we want to get a bill," Schumer said in New York on Sunday. "But there's a bottom line and that's a path to citizenship for the 11 or so million people who qualify. We've made great, great progress with our Republican colleagues."

Under the senators' plan, most illegal immigrants would be able to apply to become permanent residents -- a crucial first step toward citizenship -- but only after certain border enforcement measures have been accomplished. Among the plan's new proposals is the creation of a commission of governors, law enforcement officials and community leaders from border states that would assess when border security measures have been completed. A proposal also would require that an exit system be in place for tracking departures of foreigners who entered the country through airports or seaports, before any illegal immigrants could start on a path to citizenship.

The lawmakers intend for their proposals to frame the debate in the Senate, which is expected to take up immigration this spring, ahead of the House. Compared with an immigration blueprint from 2011 that White House officials have said is the basis for the president's position, the senators' proposals appear to include tougher enforcement and a less direct path for illegal immigrants than the president is considering.

In a parallel effort, a separate group of four senators will introduce a bill this week dealing with another thorny issue that is likely to be addressed in a comprehensive measure: visas for legal immigrants with advanced skills in technology and science. The bill, written primarily by Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., would nearly double the number of temporary visas, known as an H-1B, available each year to highly skilled immigrants. It would also free up more permanent resident visas, known as green cards, so those immigrants could eventually settle in the United States and go on to become citizens.

Changing mood

In a sign of the rapidly changing mood in Washington on immigration, the two groups of senators and the White House have been vying in recent days to see who would present their proposals first.

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who was one of those negotiating the comprehensive principles, said the senators finally agreed that any legislation should include a pathway to citizenship.

"First of all, Americans support it, in poll after poll," said Menendez, who was interviewed along with McCain by Stephanopoulos on Sunday. "Secondly, Latino voters expect it. Thirdly, Democrats want it. And fourth, Republicans need it."

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., also joined the group of eight senators in recent weeks and endorsed its principles. Rubio, a Cuban-American who is a fast-rising star in his party, had insisted on including the exit tracking system as one of the triggers for opening the path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Rubio cited estimates that as many as 40 percent of immigrants in the country illegally had overstayed their visas.

Rubio also insisted that any immigrants who gained legal status under the legislation would "be required to go to the back of the line" behind other immigrants who applied to come through legal channels.

© 2014 Star Tribune