WASHINGTON — As President Obama prepares to lay out his immigration plan during a speech in Las Vegas on Tuesday, a group of bipartisan senators has reached agreement on a framework to overhaul the nation’s immigration system.
The deal will be announced during an afternoon press conference Monday at the U.S. Capitol. The plan addresses border security, the ability of businesses to check a person’s immigration status and a streamlined process for future immigrants to enter the United States. It also opens a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants currently living in the country.
The next few months will feature heated disagreements in the divided Congress over the details of each of those proposals. But the senators’ announcement is another indication that the elusive issue of immigration, which has not been significantly addressed since the Reagan administration, may finally be in line for an overhaul.
Obama defeated Republican Mitt Romney among Hispanic voters by 71%-27%, according to surveys of 2012 voters as they left polling places. Hispanics are the fastest growing part of the electorate, and some Republicans worry about their future electoral prospects unless the party improves its standing with Latinos.
“Look at the last election,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., speaking Sunday on ABC’s This Week. “We are losing dramatically the Hispanic vote, which we think should be ours, for a variety of reasons, and we’ve got to understand that.”
The eight senators who have forged the agreement are Democrats Charles Schumer of New York, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado; and Republicans McCain, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Marco Rubio of Florida and Jeff Flake of Arizona.
The group is a mix of seasoned veterans such as McCain, who worked with the late Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy on a failed immigration plan in 2007, and newcomers such as Rubio, a 41-year-old freshman and potential presidential candidate in 2016.
The biggest hurdle facing any immigration overhaul is the Republican-led House of Representatives. For the last two years, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chaired the Judiciary Committee and described any attempt to legalize the nation’s illegal immigrants as “amnesty.” He blasted Obama in June when the president announced that the administration would defer the deportations of young illegal immigrants.
But House committee leaders have since changed and it’s unclear what kind of reception the Senate plan will receive in the House.
“The speaker welcomes the work of leaders like Sen. Rubio on this issue, and is looking forward to learning more about the proposal in the coming day,” said Michael Steel, a spokesman for House Speaker John Boehner.
According to the five-page draft of the proposal, the eight senators have crafted a “comprehensive” bill that would address most of the areas troubling legislators.
The plan says that the border must be secured and an employment verification system – a process that allows business owners to screen the immigration status of prospective employers – before the nation can address the status of illegal immigrants living in the country.
Rubio told a conservative radio host last week that there would be “triggers” put into the bill that will need to be met before moving on.
“In essence, none of that other stuff with regards to getting in line and applying, none of that happens until we have been able to certify that indeed the workplace security thing is in place, the visa tracking is in place, and there is some level of significant operational control of the border,” Rubio said Wednesday on The Mark Levin Show.
The plan then allows people illegally living in the country to apply for legal status. After passing a background check, paying back taxes, learning English and civics and establishing a work record, they would be placed in the back of the line of people who have already applied to come to the U.S.
But the plan provides some exceptions to all those requirements. Illegal immigrants brought to the country as children – called “DREAM” students after a failed bill that would give them legal status – and people who have been working in the country’s agricultural fields will have a different process to go through.
“Due to the utmost importance in our nation maintaining the safety of its food supply, agricultural workers who commit to the long term stability of our nation’s agricultural industries will be treated differently than the rest of the undocumented population because of the role they play in ensuring that Americans have safe and secure agricultural products to sell and consume,” the draft reads.
The plan also changes the way we grant visas to both low-skilled and high-skilled immigrants, calling the process “insurmountably difficult for well-meaning immigrants.”
People who obtain advanced degrees in the so-called STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – would have more access to green cards. And the nation would alter its guest-worker program to allow more people to enter for low-skilled work.