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WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of senators outlined a sweeping proposal Monday to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws, saying that the time has come to fix “our broken immigration system.”
Five of the eight senators who signed on to a detailed statement of principles to guide the effort portrayed it as a way to resolve the plight of millions of undocumented immigrants living illegally in society’s shadows and to modernize and streamline the legal immigration system.
“We have a long way to go, but this bipartisan blueprint is a major breakthrough,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.). He expressed hope that the Senate could pass a bill by late spring or summer.
Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) vowed that the overhaul would not repeat “the mistakes of 1986,” when, he said, an amnesty program legalized millions of illegal immigrants but created conditions for the illegal entry of many millions more.
The White House embraced the proposal Monday but stopped short of pledging President Obama’s signature, noting that legislation on the issue has yet to be drafted.
“It’s a set of principles that mirror the President’s principles,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said.
Mr. Obama is expected to present his own proposal at an event in Las Vegas today.
A bipartisan group of House members is also working on an immigration proposal. House Speaker John Boehner (R., Ohio) said last week that they “basically have an agreement.”
The Senate group presented its proposal at a packed Capitol Hill news conference attended by dozens of English and foreign-language media outlets. The group outlined the key balance in its proposed framework: Legalization would be afforded almost immediately to the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants, provided they pay back taxes and a fine.
But the chance to pursue full citizenship would not be available until the border was secured, new systems were in place for employers to verify workers’ immigration status, and the government could ensure that legal immigrants cannot overstay their visas.
The plan also calls for tying flows of legal immigration to the nation’s unemployment rate but generally expanding visa programs to discourage people from crossing the border without permission.
The other members behind the proposal are Democrats 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.
“It’s a pretty straightforward principle,” said Mr. Rubio, who switched between English and Spanish during the rollout. “It’s a principle that says we have to modernize our legal immigration system, we have to have a real enforcement mechanism to ensure we’re never here again in the future, and we have to deal with the people that are here now in a way that’s responsible but humane.”
Still, the proposal could draw sharp opposition on Capitol Hill, where the last attempt at an immigration overhaul sank in 2007.
Three years later, in the 2010 lame-duck session, legislation that would have provided a path to citizenship for young people who were brought to the country illegally as children fell short of passage in the Senate.
GOP response on Monday was mixed. A number of key Republicans who have opposed similar reform efforts said their concerns have not abated.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R., Texas), who just finished a term as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which oversees immigration issues, said that “by granting amnesty, the Senate proposal actually compounds the problem by encouraging more illegal immigration.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas) also said he was concerned about the proposed path. “To allow those who came here illegally to be placed on such a path is both inconsistent with rule of law and profoundly unfair to the millions of legal immigrants who waited years, if not decades, to come to America legally,” he said.
Republican Sens. Jeff Sessions of Alabama and and David Vitter of Lousiana, who had helped lead efforts to scuttle immigration legislation in 2007, despite its support from President George W. Bush, came to the Senate floor to say they have deep reservations.
Republican leaders greeted the proposal with more encouragement.
Mr. Boehner, who has said that Congress must deal with immigration this year, said he looked forward to reviewing it.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) praised the group for its “hard work” and called for an open Senate process to review any legislation that results.
The dramatic reversal in Republican opinion can be traced to November’s presidential vote, in which Mr. Obama won the support of seven in 10 Latino voters, according to exit polls.
“Elections,” Mr. McCain said Monday, explaining what had changed in his party. “The Republican Party is losing the support of our Hispanic citizens. And we realize there are many issues in which we think we are in agreement with our Hispanic citizens, but this is a pre-eminent issue with those citizens.”
The framework drew praise from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a key business lobby, and the AFL-CIO union.
A coalition of immigration advocates announced plans Monday for a major rally in support of comprehensive reform April 10 in Washington, an event designed to “put a face” on the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants.
A year after Border Patrol apprehensions of illegal border crossers fell to the lowest levels in nearly 40 years agents have seen a slight increase in arrests, according to Border Patrol arrest data obtained by The Associated Press. In the budget year that ended in September, agents arrested 356,873 would-be crossers along the Mexican border. In fiscal year 2011, agents along the Mexican border made 327,577 arrests.