WASHINGTON — Declaring that the politics of immigration “have been turned upside down,” a bipartisan group of senators Monday outlined common principles for comprehensive immigration reform and expressed optimism that legislation granting legal status to most of the country's 11 million illegal immigrants could be realized by this summer.
One day before President Obama launches a campaign-style push for his vision of immigration reform, representatives of the so-called Group of Eight senators acknowledged previous false starts on the issue, and obstacles that probably lie ahead — particularly in determining how to increase the flow of legal immigration.
But, after an election in which the share of the nonwhite vote continued to grow and swung overwhelmingly toward Obama, the lawmakers said that the path forward was as clear as ever.
“The Republican Party is losing the support of our Hispanic citizens. And we realize that there are many issues in which we think we are in agreement with our Hispanic citizens, but this is a preeminent issue with those citizens,” he said at a Capitol Hill news conference.
“For the first time ever, there's more political risk in opposing immigration reform than in supporting it,” added Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).
The Senate blueprint, drafted during weeks of closed-door meetings by leading senators from each party, is more conservative than Obama's proposal, which the president plans to unveil Tuesday in a speech in Las Vegas. But its provisions for legalizing millions of undocumented immigrants go further than measures that failed to advance in Congress in previous years — a reminder of how swiftly the politics of immigration have shifted since the November election.
The Senate proposal would allow most of those in the country illegally to obtain probationary legal status immediately by paying a fine and back taxes and passing a background check. That would make them eligible to work and live in the U.S. They could earn a green card — permanent residency — after the government certifies that the U.S.-Mexican border has become secure, but might face a lengthy process before becoming citizens.
Obama is expected to push for a faster citizenship process that would not be conditional on border security standards being met first. The structure of the citizenship process will probably be among the most hotly debated parts of any immigration plan.
Less controversial provisions would tighten requirements on employers to check the immigration status of new workers; increase the number of visas for high-skill jobs; provide green cards automatically to people who earn master's degrees or PhDs in science, technology or math at U.S. universities; and create an agricultural guest-worker program.
Schumer said lawmakers are aiming for full legislative language to be put forward by March, which will then work its way through the committee process. A vote in the Senate could come by late spring or summer, he said.
“We still have a long way to go, but this bipartisan blueprint is a major breakthrough,” he said.
Though their effort was running parallel to the president’s, Democratic Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois said he and Schumer spoke with Obama on Sunday and that the president “cheered us on.” McCain said Obama’s public campaign for it would be helpful to their cause.
Still, many conservatives on Capitol Hill remain skeptical about sweeping immigration legislation and could prove a major obstacle to any compromise.
“The last time we talked about this in 2007, it sounded very seductive. When we saw the details, it was clear it wouldn’t work,” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said in an interview Monday. Sessions said he was particularly concerned that the Obama administration is not committed to securing the borders against future illegal immigration.
Similar criticism from Republican lawmakers doomed a 2007 immigration bill pushed by President George W. Bush and seniors Senate Democrats.
Today, 22 GOP senators who opposed the 2007 plan remain in the Senate, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). By contrast, just two of the 12 Republicans who backed the compromise six years ago are still in Congress — McCain and South Carolina's Lindsey Graham.
Republican resistance to an immigration overhaul promises to be even more intense in the House, where many conservative lawmakers are leery of any proposal that would provide a mechanism for immigrants here illegally to gain citizenship, a key demand on the left.
“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,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “By granting amnesty, the Senate proposal actually compounds the problem by encouraging more illegal immigration.”
Staff writers Brian Bennett and Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.