Millions of illegal immigrants would have a path to citizenship under a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws that also calls for strengthening the borders, allowing more temporary workers and cracking down on employers who hire illegals.
A bipartisan group of leading senators reached agreement on the principles for the overhaul, which appear to have more momentum than past efforts.
President Barack Obama will travel to Nevada today to lay out his vision for what immigration policy should be, a plan that is expected to overlap with the Senate effort in important ways.
“We welcome this,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney. “We think this is positive.” He said the Senate plan mirrors the principles Obama believes must be included in immigration reform.
Passage of legislation by the full Democratic-controlled Senate is far from assured, but the tallest hurdle could come in the House, which is dominated by conservative Republicans who’ve shown little interest in carving out a route to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants currently in the country.
Still, with some Republicans chastened by the November elections which demonstrated the importance of Latino voters and their increasing commitment to Democrats, some in the GOP say this time will be different.
“Elections. Elections,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. “The Republican Party is losing the support of our Hispanic citizens. And we realize that there are many issues on which we think we are in agreement with our Hispanic citizens, but this is a pre-eminent issue with those citizens.”
In November, Obama received about 70 percent of the Latino vote.
Senators backing the effort along with McCain were Democrats Charles Schumer of New York, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado; and Republicans Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Marco Rubio of Florida and Jeff Flake of Arizona.
The inclusion of Rubio, a possible Republican presidential candidate in 2016, illustrated the political stakes involved.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., applauded the framework and said, “I will do everything in my power to get a bill across the finish line.” But House Speaker John Boehner’s office was non-commital. Boehner, R-West Chester Twp., did say last week it was “time to deal with” immigration.
Immigration has been a hot political issue throughout the country, and cases have clogged court dockets even in states like Ohio, which has a relatively small immigrant population. Ohio’s lone immigration court, in Cleveland, is currently scheduling cases to be heard in 2017.
“The system is just jammed up,” said immigration attorney E. Dennis Muchnicki of Dublin, Ohio. “The numbers in the system are made for a smaller world.”
Mark Salling, director of the Northern Ohio Data and Information Service at Cleveland State University, said the state’s immigrant population is small as a percentage of the total population but growing. The 2010 Census estimated the foreign-born population at 4.1 percent.
The plans outlined Monday were short on details, and all the senators conceded that months of tedious and politically treacherous negotiations lie ahead. A number of Republicans have already begun lining up in opposition, saying the plan rewards those who break the law.
“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. “By granting amnesty, the Senate proposal actually compounds the problem by encouraging more illegal immigration.”
McCain collaborated with the late Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy on comprehensive immigration legislation pushed by then-President George W. Bush in 2007, only to see it collapse in the Senate when it couldn’t get enough GOP support.
Jamie Longazel, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Dayton, said the national discussion reflects the fact that “immigration isn’t just an issue on the border anymore.”
He worries that the package will be “reform in name only” and will do little to eliminate the backlog. Still, the bill does make progress in giving undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship, he said.
“The reality is real people are moving into the United States are taking a huge risk,” he said.” It’s not a panacea…but it probably will help some people.”