Powered by the results of the November elections, a bipartisan group of top senators on Monday floated the latest proposal to overhaul the nation’s shattered immigration system — but acknowledged they are at the earliest stages of what is a fragile balancing act.
Led by Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, the eight lawmakers said they want to give all illegal immigrants instant legal status, to expand pathways for legal immigration and to enact more border security.
The framework is close to the 2007 bill that collapsed after voters shut down the chamber’s switchboard with angry phone calls and 53 senators, including 15 Democrats and one independent, joined a filibuster.
For now, though, this year’s plan is just a five-page framework — and the eight senators who wrote it acknowledge the difficulties ahead in turning their outline into a bill that would run hundreds of pages and settle dozens of thorny issues, then pushing that bill through the Democrat-led Senate and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives and onto President Obama’s desk.
“Other bipartisan groups of senators have stood in the same spot before, trumpeting similar proposals. But we believe this will be the year Congress finally gets it done,” Mr. Schumer said. “The politics on this issue have been turned upside down. For the first time ever, there’s more political risk in opposing immigration reform than in supporting it.”
Mr. Obama himself is scheduled to go to Las Vegas on Tuesday to add his voice to the push for action.
Since the 2007 bill failed, Congress has boosted spending on border security, deployed drones and other technology to the southwest border and seen the flow of illegal immigration drop. The number of illegal immigrants in the United States also has declined from a high of about 12 million down to 11 million, according to government estimates.
But a recent Government Accountability Office report found that the Border Patrol still captures only about 60 percent of all estimated illegal border crossers, and found that while the number of apprehensions of illegal immigrants is down, drug seizures are up — suggesting traffic is increasing.
Late Monday, The Associated Press reported that apprehensions of illegal immigrants rose last year, which suggests illegal immigration may be picking up with the improving economy.
Immigration rose to the top of the agenda after Hispanics voted overwhelmingly for Mr. Obama in last year’s elections, and Republicans concluded their candidate Mitt Romney’s harsh rhetoric on immigration helped cost them victory.
But even as momentum for action builds in the Senate, there is little sign of movement in the House.
A spokesman for House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, said he will review the details when legislation is written, and other top Republicans echoed that.
“The devil is in the details,” said Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican, who wrote his party’s border-security legislation in the middle of the previous decade. “I want to see actual legislation and assess the intended and unintended consequences of the policies. Extending amnesty to those who came here illegally or overstayed their visas is dangerous waters.”
In addition to Mr. McCain and Mr. Schumer, the other senators who wrote Monday’s framework are Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet of Colorado, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, and Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Marco Rubio of Florida.
His support for the legislation was considered a major breakthrough, and he said it matches the principles on which he had been working.
“We have to modernize our legal immigration system, we have to have a real enforcement mechanism to ensure we’re never here again in the future, and we have to deal with the people that are here now in a way that’s responsible but humane,” Mr. Rubio said. “This does that.”
The senators said they hope to have a bill written by March, and hope to push the bill through the Senate Judiciary Committee by late spring or summer.
They called for giving illegal immigrants instant legal probationary status, meaning that deportations would halt the day the legislation is signed into law. But those immigrants wouldn’t get a full path to citizenship until the country’s borders are deemed more secure, and until the government creates a system that can track visitors to make sure they aren’t overstaying their visas. The current backlog of legal applicants would also have to be cleared before any illegal immigrants were approved.
Taking on the sticky issue of access to welfare and other public benefits, the senators said those who get legal status won’t be eligible for assistance immediately.
“Current restrictions preventing nonimmigrants from accessing federal public benefits will also apply to lawful probationary immigrants,” the senators said in their framework.
Illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States as children, and those working in the agriculture sector, would not have to go through all of the steps that other illegal immigrants will have to endure, and could have access to some benefits.
In 2007, the last time the Senate had a major immigration debate, the bill failed in part because lawmakers couldn’t agree on whether to give future guest workers a path to citizenship, meaning that overall immigration to the United States would be raised. Some business groups and many Republicans preferred a true guest-worker program in which workers would return to their home countries after a period of years.
Monday’s framework comes down on the side of a path to citizenship for guest workers.
The senators vowed the border measures would ensure the country never gets to a point where illegal immigrants are pouring across the borders or overstaying their visas.
It’s the same vow lawmakers made back in 1986, when Congress last approved an amnesty legalizing millions of illegal immigrants and setting up the current immigration system.
Mr. McCain said they will boost fines for hiring illegal immigrants and will enact a better system for employers to check their hires.
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Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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