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Obama backs plan to legalize illegals

President Obama gave a thumbs up Thursday to the outline of a plan to legalize illegal immigrants and create a flow of low-skilled foreign workers for the future, saying the immigration bill being worked on by a Republican and a Democrat is "promising."

In their broad blueprint, Sens. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, and Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, call for illegal immigrants to be put on a path to citizenship, offer green cards to keep high-skilled foreign university graduates and would create a temporary program for low-skilled workers, with some also getting the chance to become citizens.

The senators also proposed to turn all Social Security cards into tamper-proof IDs to be checked by employers when they are about to hire a worker. The cards would include biometric information designed to prevent counterfeiting -- but the senators said the information would not be stored in a government database.

"I congratulate Senators Schumer and Graham for their leadership, and pledge to do everything in my power to forge a bipartisan consensus this year on this important issue so we can continue to move forward on comprehensive immigration reform," Mr. Obama said in a statement soon after the two senators published their blueprint in a column submitted to The Washington Post.

The carefully orchestrated rollout came just three days before immigrant-rights advocates expect at least 50,000 supporters to rally and march in Washington, D.C., calling for Congress to act. The organizers of the rally had met with Mr. Obama last week and told him he needed to embrace a bill or else the thousands of marchers would be told that he had failed to live up to his promises on this issue.

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But the outline is just a first step in what's still a very rocky legislative path.

Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee, said flatly that it can't pass.

"The bill doesn't have a prayer, because the American people oppose rewarding lawbreakers, which then encourages illegal immigration," he said. "Allowing millions of illegal immigrants to stay and take jobs away from citizens is like giving a burglar a key to the house. Illegal immigrants should return home and play by the rules like millions of legal immigrants."

And adding to the bill's troubles, Mr. Graham has warned Democrats and Mr. Obama that if they use the budget process to push health care through Congress -- known as reconciliation -- that could poison any chance for bipartisan cooperation on immigration.

Also, the blueprint is broad, and doesn't delve into many key details that could still split the coalition of labor, business, religious and ethnic groups that have joined together to try to pass a bill.

Still, Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, said backers have now checked off the first several steps on their to-do list: The senators have published their outline, Mr. Obama endorsed it, and earlier this week Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, said he was looking forward to moving a bill through his committee.

Mr. Noorani said the next challenges are to see if more Republicans will jump onboard the effort, and to get commitments from House Democrats to move legislation through their chamber.

"We have a bipartisan framework that is going to define a piece of legislation. From here onward, it's a political and legislative battle to get the 60 votes we need [to pass the Senate] and the 218 in the House," Mr. Noorani said.

Congress last took up immigration in 2007, when President George W. Bush joined with Democratic leaders to write a bill. But a bipartisan majority of senators joined a filibuster to block the bill.

The supporters of the 2007 effort concluded that Americans didn't trust the government to secure the borders and enforce the laws, even as they were offering legalization, particularly since illegal immigration has only grown since a 1986 amnesty.

To combat that impression, Mr. Graham and Mr. Schumer said they'll include new enforcement at both the border and in the country's interior.

"Once it is clear that in 20 years our nation will not again confront the specter of another 11 million people coming here illegally, Americans will embrace more welcoming immigration policies," they wrote.

They have been working on the proposal for months, sorting out competing interests from business groups, labor unions and immigration advocates. They said their plan has four key components: a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, a program to let in future workers, the improvements in enforcement and the biometric Social Security cards to help employers weed out illegal workers.

The senators said their legalization would be a "tough but fair" program that would require illegal immigrants to admit they broke the law and make them perform community service and pay a fine.

Illegal immigrants would also have to demonstrate they are proficient at English and pass background checks to gain citizenship.

The plan would offer permanent legal status to foreign students who earn a post-graduate degree from an American university, and creates a future program for low-skilled workers. Businesses could only hire them if no American worker is available, and the number allowed would fluctuate depending on the U.S. economy's needs. Workers who have kept jobs for a long time and have proved valuable members of their community could earn permanent legal status.

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