WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of eight prominent senators Monday laid out an ambitious overhaul of the nation’s patchwork immigration system that would balance tougher border enforcement with creating a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants and new opportunities for seasonal farmworkers to gain legal status.
The senators beat President Barack Obama to the punch, scrambling to unveil their plan a day before Obama was scheduled to outline his own proposal in Nevada, a Western state with a rising tide of Hispanic residents.
While only in his first term, the star of the senators’ group was Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a charismatic Cuban-American who has tied his political fortunes and a potential 2016 White House run to his dramatic life story as the son of political refugees from Fidel Castro.
“I am clearly new to this issue in terms of the Senate,” Rubio told reporters at a Capitol Hill news conference. “I’m not new in terms of my life. I live surrounded by immigrants. My neighbors are immigrants. I married into a family of immigrants. I see immigration every single day. I see the good of immigration. I see how important it is for our future.”
The high-powered group also included the second- and third-ranked Senate Democrats, Richard Durbin of Illinois and Charles Schumer of New York, along with 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain of Arizona and Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolinian with a reputation as a maverick willing to work across party lines on tough issues. Democratic Sens. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, also of Cuban descent, and Michael Bennet of Colorado joined the group, as did Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, just starting his first Senate term.
“It says quite a bit about our nation, about how many people want to come here in this free country with this opportunity for an expanding economy,” Durbin said. “They want to be here in America. But let’s be honest about it. . . . Our immigration system is broken. It has been broken for a long time.”
President George W. Bush, McCain, Graham and the late Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts led the last major push to pass an immigration overhaul, but it failed in June 2007 after a bitter fight that tied up the Senate for weeks.
But the 2012 presidential election results have altered the political landscape. Obama defeated Republican nominee Mitt Romney overwhelmingly among Hispanic voters, leaving Republicans wary of alienating the country’s fastest-growing demographic group.
“The Republican Party is losing the support of our Hispanic citizens,” McCain said Monday. “And we realize that there are many issues in which we think we are in agreement with our Hispanic citizens, but this (immigration reform) is a pre-eminent issue with those citizens.”
Schumer said this may be the year Congress finds a breakthrough on a problem that has vexed the nation’s leaders for a quarter-century.
“The politics on this issue have been turned upside down,” Schumer said. “For the first time ever, there is more political risk in opposing immigration reform than in supporting it.”
The new bipartisan overhaul plan would allow the country’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants to obtain a green card only after fulfilling a number of requirements: registering with the government; passing a criminal background check; settling back taxes and paying a fine for having entered the United States improperly.
If they met the first standards, undocumented immigrants would get in line behind green card applicants already pursuing legal residency. They would then have to learn English and U.S. civics, show a record of past and current employment, and pass another background check.
The plan has a significant new element that was not part of the 2007 initiative: undocumented farmworkers who “have been performing very important and difficult work to maintain America’s food supply while earning subsistence wages” could earn a path to citizenship through a different and presumably more lenient visa process for agricultural workers.
And the new package would enact most of the long-stalled DREAM Act by providing less onerous requirements for the children of illegal immigrants.
Obama last year enacted parts of the DREAM Act via executive orders, offering deferments on deportation to young adult immigrants and angering Republicans who viewed the measures as political maneuvers aimed at drawing Hispanic voters.
The senators’ plan also would beef up enforcement with more border agents, increased use of drones and other surveillance equipment and completion of an entry-exit system to track visa holders better. And it would set up a commission of governors, attorneys general and community leaders from border states.
Obama met Monday with leaders of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to brief them on his own plan.
White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the eight senators’ proposal contains “principles that mirror the president’s blueprint.”
In another sign of potential bipartisan progress, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who will host Obama on Tuesday, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky each responded positively to the bipartisan plan from their colleagues.
Even if the new overhaul package gets through the Senate, it will pass a major challenge in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where conservative Republicans have blocked major bills that have passed the Senate.
House Speaker John Boehner recently said that the House should take up immigration reform, but Rep. Lamar Smith, an influential Republican from the key border state of Texas, criticized the eight senators’ bipartisan plan.
“By granting amnesty, the Senate proposal actually compounds the problem by encouraging more illegal immigration,” Smith said.
A broad range of Hispanic groups and pro-immigration advocacy organizations greeted the plan with enthusiasm.
“It is a new day for immigration,” said Janet Murguia, head of the National Council of La Raza, a leading Hispanic group. “This is an incredibly promising sign that policymakers have turned a corner on immigration and are ready to work together on the reform our nation needs and the American people want.”
But the top lobbyist for NumbersUSA, which works to reduce immigration levels, criticized the eight senators’ proposal.
“In the race to out-amnesty Obama, the Gang of Eight today rehashed the failed amnesty plan from six years ago,” said Rosemary Jenks, director of government relations for the group.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers were among the business groups lining up behind the plan.
Lesley Clark contributed from Washington; Anita Kumar contributed from Las Vegas.