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Senators announce deal to overhaul immigration system

4:27 PM, Jan 28, 2013   |    comments
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WASHINGTON - As President Obama prepares to lay out his immigration plan during a speech in Las Vegas on Tuesday, a group of bipartisan senators has reached agreement on a framework to overhaul the nation's immigration system.

The deal was announced at a press conference Monday at the U.S. Capitol. The plan addresses border security, the ability of businesses to check immigration status and a streamlined process for future immigrants to enter the United States. It also opens a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants currently living in the country.  

The senators said their proposal is not simply an attempt to make life easier for all those people, but a chance to improve national security by knowing who's actually in the country, and improve the economy by bringing all those workers onto the tax rolls.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the proposal agreed to by four Democrats and four Republicans will ensure that the nation's borders are secured before allowing anyone to gain legal residency or citizenship. But he said forcing so many people to "live in the shadows" is unsustainable and both low-skilled and high-skilled immigrants must have more rights and easier access to the country.

"We have 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," McCain said. "I think everyone agrees that it's not beneficial to our country to have these people hidden in the shadows."

The next few months will feature heated disagreements in the divided Congress over the details of each of those proposals. But the senators' announcement is another indication that the elusive issue of immigration, which has not been significantly addressed since the Reagan administration, may finally be in line for an overhaul.

Obama defeated Republican Mitt Romney among Hispanic voters by 71%-27%, according to surveys of 2012 voters as they left polling places. Hispanics are the fastest growing part of the electorate, and some Republicans worry about their future electoral prospects unless the party improves its standing with Latinos.

 

"Look at the last election," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., speaking Sunday on ABC's This Week. "We are losing dramatically the Hispanic vote, which we think should be ours, for a variety of reasons, and we've got to understand that."

The eight senators who have forged the agreement are Democrats Charles Schumer of New York, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado; and Republicans McCain, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Marco Rubio of Florida and Jeff Flake of Arizona.

The group is a mix of seasoned veterans such as McCain, who worked with the late Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy on a failed immigration plan in 2007, and newcomers such as Rubio, a 41-year-old freshman and potential presidential candidate in 2016.

The biggest hurdle facing any immigration overhaul is the Republican-led House of Representatives. For the past two years, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chaired the Judiciary Committee and described any attempt to legalize the nation's illegal immigrants as "amnesty." He blasted Obama in June when the president announced that the administration would defer the deportations of young illegal immigrants.

But House committee leaders have since changed, and it's unclear what kind of reception the Senate plan will receive in the House.

 

"The speaker welcomes the work of leaders like Sen. Rubio on this issue, and is looking forward to learning more about the proposal in the coming day," said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner.

Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., has been working on a bipartisan version of an immigration plan with some of his House colleagues for years and was supportive of the plan laid out by the senators.

"Reasonable people who want to get this done will reach very similar conclusions, and that's what you're seeing everywhere and this reflects that," he said. "I'm very pleased to see that."

But Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based group that opposes a path to citizenship, said Republicans will be "crushed" in the 2014 elections if Congress passes anything close to the Senate plan.

"The Republicans will lose the House in 2014 because why would Republicans come out to vote for people who supported something like this?" he said. "It would be as though a Republican House enacted a legislative version of Roe v. Wade."

According to the five-page draft of the proposal, the eight senators have crafted a "comprehensive" bill that would address most of the areas troubling legislators.

The plan says that the border must be secured and an employment verification system - a process that allows business owners to screen the immigration status of prospective employees - before the nation can address the status of illegal immigrants living in the country.

Rubio told a conservative radio host last week that there would be "triggers" put into the bill that would need to be met before moving on.

"In essence, none of that other stuff with regards to getting in line and applying, none of that happens until we have been able to certify that indeed the workplace security thing is in place, the visa tracking is in place, and there is some level of significant operational control of the border," Rubio said Wednesday on The Mark Levin Show.

The plan then allows people illegally living in the country to apply for legal status. After passing a background check, paying back taxes, learning English and civics and establishing a work record, they would be placed in the back of the line of people who have already applied to come to the U.S.

 

But the plan provides some exceptions to all those requirements. Illegal immigrants brought to the country as children - called "DREAM" students after a failed bill that would give them legal status - and people who have been working in the country's agricultural fields will have a different process to go through.

"Due to the utmost importance in our nation maintaining the safety of its food supply, agricultural workers who commit to the long term stability of our nation's agricultural industries will be treated differently than the rest of the undocumented population because of the role they play in ensuring that Americans have safe and secure agricultural products to sell and consume," the draft reads.

The plan also changes the way we grant visas to both low-skilled and high-skilled immigrants, calling the process "insurmountably difficult for well-meaning immigrants."

People who obtain advanced degrees in the so-called STEM fields - science, technology, engineering and mathematics - would have more access to green cards. And the nation would alter its guest-worker program to allow more people to enter for low-skilled work.

 

Alan Gomez, USA TODAY
Contributing: Susan Davis

Gannett/USA Today

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