Landscape shifts on immigration

A bipartisan group of senators on Monday said the political landscape for immigration reform has changed, boosting their hopes for passing a bill.

Recent elections have changed his party’s view on immigration, said Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona who led an unsuccessful push to reform the nation’s immigration laws in 2006 and 2007.

McCain said his party’s leaders and strategists are convinced they need to agree to some measure of reform to boost the party’s image among Hispanic voters, who voted overwhelmingly for President Obama in November.

“As I’ve stated before, elections, elections,” said McCain, who along with four colleagues spoke out at a Monday afternoon Capitol Hill press conference about a set of bipartisan principles for reform they had released with three other senators a day earlier.

“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 for those citizens,” said McCain, his party’s standard-bearer in the 2008 presidential election.

“We cannot continue as a nation with 11 million people residing in the shadows, and we have to address the issue and it has to be done in a bipartisan fashion,” McCain said.

McCain's point was underscored by Sen. Marco Rubio's (R-Fla.) participation in the bipartisan Senate group. Rubio is seen as a leading contender for his party's presidential nomination in 2016, and his endorsement of the proposals gives the group some cover from conservative criticism. 

The four principles unveiled late Sunday include granting temporary legal status and creating a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, increasing visas for skilled workers, establishing an employer verification program and setting up a guest-worker program for jobs that cannot be filled by American citizens.

They stem from negotiations Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Judiciary immigration subcommittee, kick-started with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) after the election. Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) have endorsed it.

“The public’s attitude has changed in four years,” said Schumer. “Now they much prefer a comprehensive solution including a path to citizenship as well as fixing the border and doing the things we talked about.

“The public is yearning for real change now,” he said.

The White House on Monday welcomed the principles, with press secretary Jay Carney describing the group's endorsement of a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants as "a big deal."

While Schumer and McCain said the landscape on immigration reform had shifted, signs of the difficult debate ahead appeared throughout the day.

Shortly after their press conference, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a senior member of the Judiciary Committee, and Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) criticized the Senate group’s proposal.

Sessions compared the latest framework to the 1986 immigration law that granted legal residency to millions of illegal immigrants with the pledge the nation’s borders would be secured.

“That was the promise that was made in 1986, when the bill did pass. But it did not fulfill its promise,” Sessions said. 

“So once again, I think that we’re in a situation where the promise will be made, that people will be given immediate regularized status and they won’t be given full rights of citizenship until certain laws are enforced and don’t worry about it,” he added. “But questions do need to be asked, and we will ask those questions.”

Vitter said he is also skeptical of the bipartisan principles presented Monday by McCain, Schumer, Rubio, Durbin and Menendez.

“What heightens my concern is that we have history as a guide and history suggests this brand of so-called comprehensive immigration reform, this promise of enforcement as long as we have an amnesty, all those things put together is a recipe for failure,” Vitter said.

The sponsors have only agreed to a set of principles and still have to draft legislation, which will require hours of painstaking negotiation. The group hopes to draft a bill by March 1 and send it to the Judiciary Committee for hearings.
Schumer has discussed the group’s principles with Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who will be key to moving it through the panel.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who relied on a strong turnout of Hispanic voters to win tough re-election race in 2010, praised the framework and promised to play an active role in the debate.
“I applaud [the bipartisan group of eight] Senators for setting partisanship aside to tackle a crucial issue facing our nation. This is a positive first step,” he said. “I pledge that I will do everything in my power as Majority Leader to get a bill across the finish line.”
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) urged Reid to move immigration reform through the Judiciary Committee and not bring it straight to the floor.
“This effort is too important to be written in a back room and sent to the floor with a take-it-or-leave it approach,” he said.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) offered a less enthusiastic response than Reid. He said the House would review the Senate’s work but stopped short of calling for comprehensive immigration reform. 
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, panned the Senate proposal as amnesty and warned that it would encourage more illegal immigration.
But other past opponents of comprehensive immigration reform expressed a willingness to reconsider the issue.
Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, who voted against immigration reform bills in 2006 and 2007, praised his colleagues for trying to find a long-term solution.
“There’s a lot to be said for these members working together and moving the issue forward,” he said. “And, while I especially appreciate the group’s focus on legal avenues of immigration, there are a lot of questions to be answered on even the most mundane of topics.”
He expressed concern over the lack of detail for a proposed employment verification system.

Updated at 7:30 p.m.