WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of senators has agreed on a set of principles for a sweeping overhaul of the immigration system, including a pathway to U.S. citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants that would hinge on progress in securing the borders and ensuring that foreigners leave the country when their visas expire.
The senators were able to reach a deal by incorporating the Democrats’ insistence on a single comprehensive bill that would not deny eventual citizenship to illegal immigrants, with Republican demands that strong border and interior enforcement had to be clearly in place before Congress could consider legal status for illegal immigrants.
Their blueprint, set to be unveiled Monday, will allow them to stake out their position one day before President Obama outlines his immigration proposals in a speech Tuesday in Las Vegas, in the opening moves of what lawmakers expect will be a protracted and contentious debate on the issue in Congress this year.
In a parallel effort, a separate group of four senators will introduce a bill this week dealing with another thorny issue that is likely to be addressed in a comprehensive measure: visas for legal immigrants with advanced skills in technology and science. The bill, written primarily by Sens. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., would nearly double the number of temporary visas, known as an H-1B, available each year to highly skilled immigrants. It also would free up more permanent resident visas, known as green cards, so those immigrants eventually could settle in the United States and go on to become citizens.
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In a sign of the rapidly changing mood in Washington on immigration, the two groups of senators and the White House have been vying in recent days to see who would unveil their proposals first.
Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., who was one of those negotiating the comprehensive principles, said the senators finally agreed that any legislation should include a pathway to citizenship.
“First of all, Americans support it, in poll after poll,” said Menendez, who was interviewed along with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Sunday morning on ABC’s “This Week With George Stephanopoulos.” “Secondly, Latino voters expect it. Thirdly, Democrats want it. And fourth, Republicans need it.”
Technology companies, including Microsoft, have backed efforts to make it easier for scientists and engineers from abroad to come to the United States.
Lawmakers said they were optimistic that the political mood had changed since a similar effort collapsed in acrimony in 2010. McCain said he saw “a new appreciation” among Republicans of the need for an overhaul.
“Look at the last election,” McCain said. “We are losing dramatically the Hispanic vote, which we think should be ours.” The senator also said he had seen “significant improvements” in border enforcement, although he said “we’ve still got a ways to go.”
According to a five-page draft of the plan obtained by The New York Times on Sunday, the eight senators — including McCain, Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. — have agreed to address the failings of the immigration system in one comprehensive measure, rather than in smaller pieces, and to offer a “tough, fair and practical road map” that eventually would lead to a chance at citizenship for nearly all illegal immigrants.
“We on the Democratic side have said that we are flexible and we want to get a bill,” Schumer said Sunday in New York. “But there’s a bottom line and that’s a path to citizenship for the 11 or so million people who qualify. We’ve made great, great progress with our Republican colleagues.”
Under the senators’ plan, most illegal immigrants would be able to apply to become permanent residents — a crucial first step toward citizenship — but only after certain border-enforcement measures have been accomplished. Among the plan’s new proposals is the creation of a commission of governors, law-enforcement officials and community leaders from border states that would assess when border-security measures have been completed. A proposal also would require that an exit system be in place for tracking departures of foreigners who entered the country through airports or seaports, before any illegal immigrants could start on a path to citizenship.
The lawmakers intend for their proposals to frame the debate in the Senate, which is expected to take up immigration this spring, ahead of the House of Representatives. Compared with an immigration blueprint from 2011 that White House officials have said is the basis for the president’s position, the senators’ proposals appear to include tougher enforcement and a less direct path for illegal immigrants than Obama is considering.
Under the senators’ proposal, border security would be immediately strengthened with new technology, including aerial drones, for Border Patrol agents, while the Department of Homeland Security would work to expand the exit control system. The United States now has exit controls to track departures of foreigners only in some airports, and it does not systematically track exits by land.
At the same time, immigrants here illegally would “simultaneously” be required “to register with the government.” After passing background checks and paying back taxes and fines, those immigrants would receive a “probationary legal status” that would allow them to live and work legally in the United States. Immigrants with that status would not be eligible for most federal public benefits.
The senators also called for a mandatory nationwide program to verify the legal status of new hires, although the details of whether that would include some form of identity card remained vague.
The senators would require that “our proposed enforcement measures be complete before any immigrant on probationary status can earn a green card,” according to the draft principles. The group also includes Sens. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.; Marco Rubio, R-Fla.; Michael Bennet, D-Colo.; and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
The proposals would offer major exemptions from the requirements for citizenship to young immigrants here illegally who came to United States as children, giving them a faster path to become Americans.
Immigrant farmworkers will also be given a separate and faster path to citizenship, according to the principles.
Still ahead are difficult negotiations over how long immigrants who gain provisional status would have to wait before they could become citizens. Many labor organizations are skeptical of the temporary guest worker programs that employers favor, and the principles are vague on that point.
Considerable resistance remains among Republicans in the House to granting any kind of legal status to illegal immigrants.