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Senators agree on immigration overhaul plan

The bipartisan group’s proposal would grant legal status to most of the country’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.

By Brian Bennett and Lisa Mascaro, Washington Bureau

9:00 PM PST, January 27, 2013

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of senators has agreed on a plan to grant legal status to most of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., which could form the basis for a far-reaching overhaul of immigration laws this year.

The Senate blueprint, drafted during weeks of closed-door meetings by leading senators from each party, will probably set parameters for a contentious legislative battle over the next several months. The eight senators involved intend to release their proposal publicly Monday. A copy was provided to The Times’ Washington bureau on Sunday by Senate aides.

The Senate plan is more conservative than President Obama’s proposal, which he plans to unveil Tuesday in a speech in Las Vegas. But its provisions for legalizing millions of undocumented immigrants go further than measures that failed to advance in Congress in previous years — a reminder of how swiftly the politics of immigration have shifted since Latino voters’ strong influence in the November election.

In terms of the number of people who would potentially receive legal status, it would be more than three times larger than the amnesty plan passed under President Reagan in 1986, which legalized about 3 million immigrants.

The senators involved hope to begin committee votes on a bill as soon as March. The timing of their proposal and Obama’s, coupled with that schedule — quick by Senate standards — could set up a dynamic in which an eventual bill falls somewhere between the bipartisan plan and the president’s.

Latino activists and other advocates for comprehensive immigration reform have pushed for quick action in the Senate, hoping that a large bipartisan vote for a bill that includes a path to citizenship would put pressure on the House.

Many members of the House Republican majority represent districts where proposals for legalization remain highly unpopular, but many Republicans also worry about the political price if the party takes the blame for killing immigration reform.

The Senate proposal would allow most of those in the country illegally to obtain probationary legal status immediately by paying a fine and back taxes and passing a background check. That would make them eligible to work and live in the U.S. They could earn a green card — permanent residency — after the government certifies that the U.S.-Mexican border has become secure, but might face a lengthy process before becoming citizens.

Obama is expected to push for a faster citizenship process that would not be conditional on border security standards being met first. The structure of the citizenship process will probably be among the most hotly debated parts of any immigration plan.

Less-controversial provisions would tighten requirements on employers to check the immigration status of new workers; increase the number of visas for high-skilled jobs; provide green cards automatically to people who earn master’s degrees or PhDs in science, technology or math at U.S. universities; and create an agricultural guest-worker program.

On Sunday, a White House spokesman said the president was “pleased that progress is being made with bipartisan support.”

“At the same time, he will not be satisfied until there is meaningful reform, and he will continue to urge Congress to act,” Obama spokesman Clark Stevens said.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who heads the Senate subcommittee that handles immigration legislation, briefed the White House on Sunday, according to a Senate aide who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

The eight senators scrambled over the weekend to come to an agreement before Obama unveiled his plan, hoping to head off any potential Republican backlash against a White House proposal and show common ground.

At a news conference Sunday in New York, Schumer noted that “the devil is in the details,” but said that he and the other senators in the group had made good progress.

“I’m impressed with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle over their desire to meet in the middle. We can’t pass it without both Democrats and Republicans,” said Schumer, adding that he and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) had “developed a little bit of a friendship” during the negotiations.

The group has met in person five times in Washington since the November election, alternating between the Capitol Hill offices of Schumer and McCain. Participants include Democrats Richard J. 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.

Rubio, a conservative favorite widely seen as a potential contender for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016, was asked to join the Senate group in early December. In their discussions, Rubio focused on strengthening employee-verification provisions and improving border security before the new class of immigrants could be eligible for citizenship, a Senate aide said.

So far, the group has negotiated legislative language on implementing the legalization program and on increasing border security, said a Senate aide familiar with the discussions. The senators will turn their attention next to details on how to increase the flow of legal immigration to reduce the incentive for illegal border crossings, the aide said.

One sticking point could be how the government decides the border is secure — the determination that would trigger the provisions allowing citizenship.

The senators have proposed a commission of border-state governors, attorneys general and community leaders to monitor border security. But if the government fails to meet the panel’s standard, those granted the new probationary legal status could be living indefinitely as a second class of Americans, allowed to remain in the U.S. but unable to vote, enroll in Medicare or receive federal student loans.

Another issue involves establishing an exit-visa system to track when people leave the country. The proposal calls for exit visas at seaports and airports, but does not specify whether they also would be required at land border crossings, which could be considerably more expensive. A system for tracking when people leave is a priority for the senators, because about 40% of the country’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants entered with a legal visa and overstayed.

Even before the bipartisan plan’s release, immigration experts have said the chances for reform are better than in previous years.

“When both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue are talking about the issue in calm tones but with a sense of urgency, that is the makings for legislative action,” said Angela Kelley, an expert on immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington.

Both the White House and lawmakers seem to be moving fast to get a bill introduced, Kelley said, adding: “The players are about as caffeinated as I’ve seen them.”

Christi Parsons in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.



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