WASHINGTON — Side by side, leading Democratic and Republican senators pledged Monday to propel far-reaching immigration legislation through the Senate by summer providing a possible path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million people now in the U.S. illegally.
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 Barack Obama and other Democrats — could make this time different.
Passage of the emotionally charged legislation by the Democratic-controlled Senate is far from assured, and a taller hurdle could come later in the House, which is dominated by conservative Republicans who’ve shown little interest in immigration overhaul. Obama is expected to lay out his own proposals today.
Besides the citizenship provision, including new qualifications, the measure would increase border security, allow more temporary workers to stay and crack down on employers who would 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 with a re-elected Obama pledging his commitment, the lawmakers argued that six years after the last sustained congressional effort at an immigration overhaul came up short in the Senate, chances for approval this year are much better.
“Elections. Elections,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. “The Republican Party is losing the support of our Hispanic citizens. And we realize that there are many issues on which we think we are in agreement with our Hispanic citizens, but this is a pre-eminent issue with those citizens.”
Obama got 71 percent of the Latino vote in November compared to 27 percent for Republican Mitt Romney. The president travels to Las Vegas today to lay out his proposals for changes that are expected to be similar to the Senate proposals in many ways.
In a five-page framework, the lawmakers set out plans for creating a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already here, contingent upon securing the border and better tracking of people in the U.S. on visas, overhauling the legal immigration system, including awarding green cards to immigrants who obtain certain advanced degrees from American universities, creating an effective high-tech employment verification system to ensure that employers do not hire illegal immigrants in the future and allowing more low-skill and agricultural workers.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Mobile, said on the Senate floor, “No one should expect members of the Senate are just going to rubber-stamp what a group has met and decided.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., applauded the framework and said, “I will do everything in my power to get a bill across the finish line.”
Pressures from outside groups from business to organized labor to immigrants themselves will be immense, even as lawmakers warily eye voters for their reaction.
As the group turns to the work of writing legislation, which they hope to see come to a vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee in March, there may be most disagreement over the path to staying in the U.S. legally. In order to satisfy the concerns of Republicans, the senators are calling for the completion of steps on border security and oversight of those here on visas before taking major steps forward on the path to citizenship.
Even then, those here illegally would have to pass background checks and pay fines and taxes in order to qualify for a “probationary legal status” that would allow them to live and work here — and not qualify for federal benefits — before being able to apply for permanent residency, a critical step toward citizenship. Once they are allowed to apply they would do so behind everyone else already in line for a green card within the current immigration system.
The senators want a more streamlined process toward citizenship for immigrants brought here as children, and for agricultural workers.
Groups including Latino advocacy organizations, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and organized labor were quick to praise the emerging framework. But some also sounded notes of caution.
Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change, questioned the process being set out for the path to citizenship. “If the details are not done correctly, the path to citizenship can take far longer than it is reasonable. There is real concern about those details,” he said.