Senator Robert Menendez, D-N.J. and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fl., speak a news conference to announce a bi-partisan agreement on the principals of a comprehensive immigration reform bill. (Photo By Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call)

Senators: Immigration reform to come by summer

A major breakthrough – that’s what a bipartisan group of Senators called their immigration reform proposal, a plan that could lead the way to legislation by the summer.

“I am the most optimistic I’ve been in quite some time — I recognize there are difficult challenges, but the spirit and commitment is far beyond what I’ve seen in a long time — and the American people support this,” said Democratic New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, one of the proposal’s architects.  Another co-sponsor, Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio, said  “This is a significant, complicated journey — but we have the opportunity to do it right.”

The two Senators, along with Democratic New York Senator Charles Schumer, Republican Arizona Senator John McCain and Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin, outlined their 4-point plan to a packed press conference this afternoon.

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“On day one, people will be able to live here legally without fear of deportation,” explained Senator Charles Schumer, saying the first thing the plan achieves is to “bring out of the shadows” 11 million undocumented immigrants by having them register, go through a background check, learn English and pay back taxes as they first earn probationary legal status and then gradually earn a path to citizenship.  Dreamers would be on a faster track, as the Senators recognize they were brought here as children.  Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin said today it was “good news” for Dreamers, who have been an integral part of the push for reform.

At the same time the plan attempts to bring the nation’s undocumented out of the shadows, Senator Schumer said they will not move forward on a path to citizenship unless the country has fully secured the borders and end the practice of foreigners overstaying their visas.  Senator Rubio firmly said enforcement is  a crucial part of the package.  “We need to enforce laws to ensure we’re never here again,” he said.

The proposal calls for creating a system to strictly enforce the exit/entry visa system for foreign visitors. It also calls for an employment verification system which can also prevent identity theft, as well as creating a system to meet the needs of the country’s agriculture and business industries when there is a need for more workers.  The plan also attempts to increase the number of skilled immigrants allowed to come into the country.

Senator Menendez  said the country had to recognize the economic role of immigrants in our daily lives.  The New Jersey Democratic Senator said if a person had fruit for breakfast or vegetables or chicken for lunch, it was probably picked or plucked by an immigrant, and if a person slept in a hotel or motel room, it was probably cleaned by an immigrant. “And if you’re looking at cutting edge technology, it was created by the intellect of an immigrant worker,” said Senator Menendez.

This is only the opening salvo of what will be a long process. The Senate proposal argues, for example, that a path to citizenship is contingent on how safe the border is, and it proposes the possibility of a commission made up of border governors and law enforcement officials to determine such security.  Some, like immigration advocate Kica Matos from the Center for Community Change, worry that “reform hinging on enforcement might be shifting the goal posts for citizenship.”

While the next step is to hash out the details in the Legislature and the White House, national Latino groups lauded the announcement as an important first step. “It is a new day for immigration,” said Janet Murguía, from the National Council of La Raza.

Other groups also praised the plan, while acknowledging the need to ensure a realistic path to citizenship.  “We call on U.S. Senators to introduce legislation that will  make a pathway to citizenship a reality by ensuring that the legal process for entry into the country is efficient and timely and that the naturalization process remains accessible and affordable to eligible immigrants,” was the statement from the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO)’s Educational Fund.

On the House side, which has been much more polarized than the Senate on the prospects of immigration reform, Latino House members saw today’s announcement as a positive sign.

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“All of the pieces are falling into place,”  said Illinois Democratic congressman Luis Gutierrez,  a longtime proponent of immigration reform and of the Dream Act. “We have not signed on the dotted line and some important details are yet to be resolved, but what we have now is momentum,” he added. Gutierrez announced that this coming Saturday in Colorado, he will be joined by clergy, local leaders and elected officials to start a national tour to build support for immigration reform.

California Democratic Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez said, “I’m hopeful that as the legislation is crafted, House Republicans will join their Senate counterparts and come to the table.”

Florida Republican Congressman Mario Díaz-Balart said  “the prospect of true immigration reform can only happen with bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress, and today’s news is a step in that direction,” he said.

President Obama, who will be in Nevada tomorrow to announce his administration’s plan to work toward immigration reform, welcomes the efforts of the group, according to White House spokesman Jay Carney. “I think what is positive about this discussion is that the bipartisan group — has embraced the principles the President has long put forward and espoused,” said Carney.

The looming question, says Northern Arizona University political scientist and NBC Latino contributor Stephen Nuño, is whether Democrats and Republican legislators from conservative districts will support an eventual immigration reform bill.  “These Senators have presented a moment of ‘clarity’ on immigration reform, but it’s still a highly political negotiation,” says Nuño.

When asked in the press conference about the ability to garner more support from his fellow Republican colleagues, Arizona Senator John McCain said, “we’re not going to get everybody on board.” Still, said Senator McCain, immigration reform was the right thing to do.

And in a nod to how important immigration reform was to many of the Latino voters who rebuffed the GOP in November, McCain said, “the Republican party is losing the support of our Hispanic citizens.”

Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer said, “We believe this is the year Congress gets it done.”

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