Bipartisan Immigration Plan Counters Republican Orthodoxy

Advocates of overhauling U.S. immigration laws say a proposal from a bipartisan group of senators opens a long and perilous road for the issue in Congress.

The Senate group unveiled principles today for the most comprehensive attempt to revamp immigration laws since former President George W. Bush’s failed effort in 2007.

“We believe this will be the year Congress finally gets it done,” New York Democrat Charles Schumer said at a news conference with four other members of the group. “For the first time ever there’s more political risk in opposing immigration reform than in supporting it.”

Schumer said he hopes a bill can be put together by March, with a goal of Senate passage by late spring or summer.

The plan includes a path to citizenship for some of the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants. It marks significant progress on an issue that has, because of Republican opposition, stymied past efforts to rewrite immigration laws.

“It’s kind of like the pistol shot at the start of the race,” Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a Washington group that advocates overhauling the immigration laws, said in a telephone interview. “There is a lot of work ahead.”

Broad Principles

Details of the plan remain unresolved. The group, also including Democrats Richard Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado, and Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona, has agreed on broad principles and hasn’t drafted a bill.

McCain, who helped lead the unsuccessful overhaul in 2007, said at the news conference that Americans “have been too content for too long to allow individuals to mow our lawn, serve us food, clean our homes and even watch our children while not affording them any of the benefits that make our country so great.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said the agreement represented a “positive first step.” He has listed an immigration overhaul as among the Senate’s top legislative priorities.

A proposal would need the backing of at least one additional Republican to have the 60 votes needed to advance in the Senate. Democrats control 55 votes in the 100-member chamber. The number of Republican backers needed would increase with every Democratic defection.

Closer to Passing

Still, the acknowledgment by some Republicans that a pathway to citizenship is necessary is cheering advocates for revamping immigration policy.

“I am the most optimistic I have been in quite some time,” Menendez said. The path to citizenship outlined in the proposal will be “an arduous pathway, but it will be a fair one,” he said.

The plan follows a defeat for Republicans in the 2012 presidential election that has compelled the party to seek ways to make inroads with Latino voters. The rapidly growing voting bloc cast 71 percent of its votes for President Barack Obama in November.

“The Republican Party is losing the support of our Hispanic citizens,” McCain said. “This is a preeminent issue to those citizens.”

Speaker Boehner

House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio is among the Republicans who have said the party needs to find a more positive approach to immigration policy.

Boehner “welcomes the work of leaders like Senator Rubio on this issue and is looking forward to learning more about the proposal in the coming days,” spokesman Michael Steel said in an e-mailed statement.

Some Republicans complain of what they call amnesty for people who entered the country illegally.

The Senate group is calling for tougher border security and enforcement before providing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. These immigrants would face a prolonged process to remain in the U.S. legally.

The proposal would boost the number of unmanned aerial vehicles watching for illegal border crossings, mandate completion of a system to track whether individuals entering the U.S. on temporary visas have left the country, and require people in the country without authorization to pay fines and back taxes.

Racial Profiling

It would strengthen prohibitions against racial profiling and exempt people who entered the country as minors from many of the plan’s requirements for individuals who entered the country illegally as adults. The proposal would create a separate path to citizenship for agricultural workers.

White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters today the administration “welcomes” the Senate group’s proposal and said it “mirrors” Obama’s plan. The U.S. is “at a moment now” where “support seems to be coalescing,” Carney said.

Obama plans to travel to Nevada tomorrow to advocate for legislation in a state with a sizable share of Latino voters who were instrumental in his re-election.

Bush’s 2007 attempt to change the immigration system, including a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented, and Obama’s effort in 2010 failed amid public anger over unchecked immigration and opposition from Republicans who contended that the plans rewarded illegal entry.

House Group

The House’s informal immigration working group, which has met privately for almost four years, includes Representatives Mario Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican, Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, and John Carter, a Texas Republican.

The issue of undocumented immigrants resonates with Latino voters. Two-thirds of Latinos have a friend or family member who is undocumented, according to a post-campaign analysis by the polling firm Latino Decisions.

“When we talk about deporting undocumented immigrants, Latino voters connect that statement to someone they know in their personal lives,” said Stanford University professor Gary Segura, who conducted the analysis.

Still, it remains to be seen how many House Republicans would support anything other than an enforcement-only approach.

“Illegal immigration and any path to citizenship for illegal immigrants is a form of amnesty and is opposed by most Americans because it will harm American workers, students, taxpayers and voters,” William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration PAC, said in a statement. The group opposed the 2007 and 2010 overhaul efforts.

‘Huge Impact’

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, said in a statement that there are “a lot of questions about how this would work, what it would cost, and how it will prevent illegal immigration in the future. This will have a huge impact on the American people and so we have to carefully evaluate its impact.”

In Arizona, Phoenix civil rights attorney Danny Ortega said issues remain, such as determining when the border is secured. Still, he said the proposal put the nation on the right path.

“America through this legislation is beginning to re-establish its core values,” said Ortega, former chairman of the National Council of La Raza. The proposal “recognizes the contribution of immigrants, and not only that but recognizes that we cannot survive economically without them.”

Michael Seifert, a community organizer with the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network in Brownsville, Texas, said, “Comprehensive immigration reform would be an extraordinary moment for our communities.” The group is a coalition of nonprofit organizations that advocate for low-income residents.

Many families in the four-county Rio Grande Valley include a mix of U.S. citizens, undocumented workers and those with temporary work permits, Seifert said. “It’s not as simple as just a bunch of people without the proper papers.”

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