A bipartisan group of top senators Monday proposed a pathway to citizenship for many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, a plan hailed by the White House.
The proposal, made by four Democrats and four Republicans after weeks of talks, appears to be the most serious attempt at immigration reform since 2007, when then president George W. Bush’s effort failed to get through Congress.
President Barack Obama has made it clear that reforming what many have described as a “broken” immigration system is to be a top priority of his second term, which began on January 20.
The plan, unveiled on Monday by the lawmakers including Republicans John McCain and Marco Rubio, and Democrats Dick Durbin and Chuck Schumer, would provide a “tough but fair” pathway to citizenship for most undocumented immigrants.
It also includes a strengthened employment verification system, increased border security to include drones and other surveillance, improved skill-based immigration, better visa enforcement, and deportation for serious criminals.
Schumer said he was confident a deal could be struck within months.
“We still have a long way to go, but this bipartisan blueprint is a major breakthrough,” Schumer told reporters.
Other bipartisan groups of lawmakers have trumpeted similar proposals before, Schumer said, “but we believe this will be the year Congress finally gets it done.”
“For the first time ever, there is more political risk in opposing immigration reform than in supporting it,” said Schumer, who represents New York state.
McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential candidate defeated by Obama, said the politics of the issue had changed dramatically.
“If you look at the polls when it comes to immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for certain immigrants without papers, the American people are there,” he said.
But McCain, from the border state of Arizona where illegal immigration remains a hot-button issue, said dramatic improvements along the border have also helped turn the tide.
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney said Obama “believes it is very important that we move forward on comprehensive immigration reform.”
“It’s the right thing to do for the country, for our economy. It’s the right thing to do out of fairness to the middle class to make sure that everyone plays by the same set of rules,” Carney said.
Obama heads to the western state of Nevada on Tuesday to “redouble the administration’s efforts to work with Congress to fix the broken immigration system this year,” the White House said.
For years, efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform has been thwarted by conservatives in Congress.
In 2010, a bill supported by Obama that would have legalized the status of many of the undocumented immigrants living in the United States died in Congress because of opposition from Republicans, including Rubio.
The last major overhaul of US immigration law was in 1986, under Republican president Ronald Reagan.
Hispanics, the fastest growing minority group, make up about 16 per cent of the US population. Immigration is a major issue for the community, and their overwhelming support for Obama last year was a clarion call to politicians from both parties.
Human Rights Watch said it was concerned that the current proposal puts illegal immigrants in the “back of the line” of those seeking to legally immigrate.
“The wait under the existing system already can be almost 20 years, because of the limited number of family-based immigration visas available. The wait could become even longer if legalisation is to be contingent on the border being deemed secure,” the group said in a statement.
Antonio Ginatta, US advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, however said that “after years of inaction, it’s heartening to see a bipartisan group of lawmakers agree on principles for wide-scale reform.
“But if Congress doesn’t stay focused on protecting basic rights as it works out the details, some of the worst abuses could go unaddressed.”