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 will lay out his own proposals today, most of which mirror the Senate plans.
Besides the citizenship provision, including new qualifications, the Senate 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.
“Other bipartisan groups of senators have stood in the same spot before, trumpeting similar proposals,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. “But we believe this will be the year Congress finally gets it done. The politics on this issue have been turned upside down,” Schumer said, arguing that polls show more support than ever for immigration changes and political risk in opposing it.
“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 will endorse the Senate process during an event in Las Vegas today, administration officials said. He will outline a similar vision for overhauling the nation’s immigration laws, drawing on the immigration “blueprint” he first released in 2011.
The blueprint focuses on four key areas: a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., improved border security, an overhaul of the legal immigration system and making it easier for businesses to verify the legal status of workers.
Seeking to ramp up pressure on lawmakers, the White House has prepared formal immigration legislation that it could send to Capitol Hill should the Senate process stall, administration officials said. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal strategy.
Like the president’s blueprint, the Senate proposals also call for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already here. But lawmakers want the creation of that pathway to be contingent upon securing the border and better tracking of people in the U.S. on visas.
The Senate’s five-page framework also calls for 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.
In a sign of the challenges ahead, the proposals immediately got a cool reaction from Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
“This effort is too important to be written in a back room and sent to the floor with a take-it-or-leave it approach,” McConnell said. “It needs to be done on a bipartisan basis and include ideas from both sides of the aisle.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., 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.”