WASHINGTON—A bipartisan group of eight senators on Monday introduced a set of immigration reform proposals, including a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country. They hope to pass the legislation as early as late spring.
It's an ambitious timetable for a wedge issue that saw its last comprehensive law passed in 1986. In 2007, lawmakers tried and failed to address the status of illegal immigrants currently in the U.S. But some Republican lawmakers have become more open to examining the issue after Hispanic voters broke heavily for Democrats in last November’s elections.
The new proposal, currently just an outline, aims to appease Democrats by allowing immigrants already in the country to apply for legal status and seeks to attract Republican support by promising to beef up border security through more agents and drones. The four Democrats and four Republicans behind the plan agreed to allow undocumented workers to register with the government and, upon paying a fine, be allowed to keep working under a probationary legal status. The effort also calls for stiffer verification measures for employers and includes the DREAM Act, the pathway to citizenship for immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. That act, popular among Democrats, has been implemented in part already through a executive order issued last year by President Barack Obama.
"We believe this will be the year Congress finally gets immigration done,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York. “The politics on this issue have been turned upside down. For the first time, there’s more political risk in opposing immigration reform than in supporting it.”
The Democratic senators joining Schumer are: Richard Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado.
But it will be the Republicans in Congress who will be more closely watched during this immigration debate. Many conservatives see a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants already here as rewarding those who have disobeyed the country’s laws.
John McCain of Arizona, one of the Republicans behind the proposal, said it creates a tough but fair path to citizenship.
"It is not beneficial to this country to have these people here, hidden in the shadows," said McCain, who also participated in the unsuccessful immigration effort in 2007.
McCain also acknowledged political considerations that can no longer be ignored: "The Republican Party is losing the support of our Hispanic citizens.”
Also joining McCain on the Republican side are Jeff Flake of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and, most significantly, Marco Rubio of Florida.
This will be a spotlight opportunity for Rubio, a Cuban-American with ambitions for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Rubio pleased conservatives on Jan. 1 when he voted against a late-night fiscal cliff deal that punted on spending cuts. But he may alienate those same conservatives by supporting any form of amnesty in this immigration deal. He is expected to push for the security elements of the plan to be implemented before the citizenship pathway begins. That likely won’t be a priority in any White House immigration plan. Obama is expected to unveil his immigration specifics on Tuesday.
The four Republicans in the immigration working group will now attempt to win over more GOP supporters. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell gave it a tepid response on Monday, saying he “appreciated the hard work” that went into the “framework” of the deal.
“In order for any reform to be successful, congressional committees will have to review and write legislation through regular order, and all members must have an opportunity to debate and amend any legislation that comes to the floor,” McConnell said. “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.”
Sen. David Vitter, R-La., was more skeptical of the plan during an appearance on the Senate floor on Monday evening.
“What heightens my concern is that we have history as a guide,” Vitter said, “And history suggests this brand of so-called comprehensive immigration reform, this promise of enforcement as long as we have an amnesty, all those things put together is a recipe for failure.”
The bigger question is how the Republican-led House will act. The fact that McCain on Monday compared the new deal to legislation once authored by liberal icon Ted Kennedy likely will not help the current deal’s chances in the House. The new deal tries to make itself more appetizing by calling the new pathway to citizenship a “legalization.” But most conservatives will still call it granting amnesty to lawbreakers.
Republicans have already backpedalled on some of their priorities since suffering defeat in last year’s election: the Jan.1 fiscal cliff deal delayed spending cuts that had already been put off for 18 months while the House last week voted to raise the debt ceiling for three months. It was a quiet vote compared to the uproar fiscal conservatives caused two years ago over raising the federal government’s borrowing power.
But former presidential candidate and Tea Party favorite Herman Cain endorsed the immigration deal on his radio show Monday while the American Conservative Union (ACU) released a statement urging the House to follow suit.
“As a result of the White House Executive Orders last year, we now have a defacto amnesty status which can only be fixed through legislation,” said ACU head Al Cardenas.
At least one important House Republican indicated Monday that he would not block the plan.
"The current immigration system is broken and inspires confidence in no one," said Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy, the chair of the House immigration subcommittee. "So, proposals which balance the humanity which defines us as a people with respect for the rule of law which defines us as a republic are welcome."
But Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who also sits on the immigration subcommittee, issued his own warning against amnesty.
"When you legalize those who are in the country illegally, it costs taxpayers millions of dollars, costs American workers thousands of jobs and encourages more illegal immigration,” he said in a statement. “By granting amnesty, the Senate proposal actually compounds the problem by encouraging more illegal immigration."