Senators forge deal on immigration

A bipartisan group of influential senators has agreed to a framework of principles to guide immigration reform, paving the way for a comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws in the next year.

The agreement includes four basic goals: creating a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already living in the country; increasing the immigration rate of skilled workers; implementing an employer verification program to spotlight illegal workers; and creating a guest-worker program.

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Two of the Senate’s top-ranking Democratic leaders, Sens. Dick Durbin (Ill.) and Charles Schumer (N.Y.), and the Senate’s two leading Republican authorities on immigration reform, Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), have signed on.

The framework hews to a set of principles Rubio, a rising conservative star, outlined in an interview with The Wall Street Journal earlier this month.

“We recognize the immigration system is broken,” the lawmakers wrote in the introduction to their five-page framework. “And while border security has improved significantly over the last two administrations, we still don’t have a functioning immigration system.”

They say their legislation would commit “the resources needed to secure the border, modernize and streamline our current legal immigration system, while creating a tough but fair legalization program for individuals who are currently here.”

Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) have also signed on to the proposal.

The bipartisan group released its principles Sunday night and will hold a press conference Monday at 2:30 p.m., pre-empting President Obama, who is scheduled to outline his vision for immigration reform at a speech in Las Vegas on Tuesday.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has declared immigration reform one of the highest priorities of the 113th Congress. Any set of principles that can attract broad bipartisan support will likely serve as the basis for legislation on a fast track to the Senate floor.

Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), through a spokesman, said he would review the proposal but stopped short of embracing it.

“The Speaker welcomes the work of leaders like Sen. Rubio on this issue, and is looking forward to learning more about the proposal in the coming days,” said Boehner’s aide, Michael Steel.

The centerpiece of the framework addresses the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States. The Senate group seeks to create a “tough but fair path to citizenship” for unauthorized immigrants.

“I see the right spirit. I see things that were once off the table for agreement and discussion being on the table with a serious pathway forward,” Menendez told ABC’s “This Week” in an interview Sunday. “At one time, pathway to earned legalization was off the table. We were talking about sending people back as touchbacks, if they had any opportunity. That's not really being discussed. We're making very significant progress.”

Under the agreement, illegal immigrants who pass background checks and pay fines and back taxes would receive temporary legal status, but only after the federal government has achieved a litany of goals for improving border security.

Illegal residents granted probationary legal status would be required to go “to the back of the line,” behind those applying for permanent legal status. Those who meet several requirements, such as learning English and demonstrating a history of work in the United States, could earn green cards. They would not be allowed to access federal public benefits.

Illegal immigrants granted temporary legal status would receive green cards only after every lawful green-card applicant has gone through the process.

“Our purpose is to ensure that no one who has violated America’s immigration laws will receive preferential treatment as they relate to those individuals who have complied with the laws,” the senators state in their proposal.

The framework beefs up border security by calling for an increase in the number of unmanned aerial vehicles and surveillance equipment and calls for the creation of a commission made up of governors, attorneys general and community leaders from Southwestern states to monitor progress. It would strengthen prohibitions against racial profiling.

It calls for the completion of an entry-exit system to track whether visitors receiving temporary visas leave the country as required.

It would create a special pathway for the children of illegal immigrants who came to the country as minors, as well as for agricultural workers.

The proposal tracks closely with the principles Rubio laid out recently in an interview with The Wall Street Journal.

Rubio said illegal immigrants could apply for permanent residency leading to citizenship if “they haven't violated any of the conditions of that status" and said the waiting time for a green card “would have to be long enough to ensure that it’s not easier to do it this way than it would be the legal way."

The plan would expand visas for high-tech workers and grant green cards to immigrants pursuing advanced degrees in scientific and technical areas.

“It makes no sense to educate the world’s future innovators and entrepreneurs only to ultimately force them to leave our country at the moment they are most able to contribute to the economy,” the senators wrote.

The Senate group has endorsed an E-Verify system to remove illegal immigrants from the workforce.

“An employment verification system must hold employers accountable for knowingly hiring undocumented workers and make it more difficult for unauthorized immigrants to falsify documents to obtain employment,” the group wrote.

Employers who knowingly hire illegal workers would face fines and criminal penalties, under its plan.

The framework also lays the groundwork for a guest-worker program, something that has been controversial with labor unions.

The group says its plan would “allow employers to hire immigrants if it can be demonstrated that they were unsuccessful in recruiting an American to fill an open position and the hiring of an immigrant will not displace American workers.”

The guest-worker program would be geared to the needs of farmers who cannot find legal residents to fill low-wage jobs.

The AFL-CIO has argued that a guest-worker program would institutionalize a second-class workforce that could be exploited by employers.

In a bid to win union support, the Senate proposal promises strong labor protections for these workers.

This story was last updated at 12:19 p.m.