Immigration reformers credit Kennedy

The late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) continues to exert an influence on the Senate, the chamber in which he served for 47 years.

Democrats cited Kennedy, long known as the "Lion of the Senate," as an inspiration when they passed the healthcare reform law at the start of President Obama’s first term. Now, nearly four years after Kennedy's death, senators in both parties are channeling his memory as they pursue immigration reform.

“If we do succeed, and I think we will, it will be a testimonial to Ted Kennedy’s effort years ago that laid the groundwork for this agreement,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a member of the bipartisan group of senators that on Monday backed a set of principles for comprehensive immigration reform.

“You will find that this agreement has very little difference from that of the legislation that was led by Sen. Kennedy some years ago."

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McCain and seven other senators have agreed to a framework calling for legislation to establish a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.

Illegal immigrants would receive temporary legal status after the government takes a variety of steps to secure the Southwestern border, such as increasing the fleet of unmanned aerial drones to patrol it. Illegal immigrants who pass a background check, demonstrate English skills and pay back taxes would be eligible to apply for permanent legal residency.

Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), who also supports the bipartisan framework, said Kennedy recruited him to advance comprehensive immigration reform in 1997.

“Sixteen years ago, when I was elected to the Senate, one of the first phone calls I received, and I was so honored, was from Ted Kennedy,” Durbin recalled. “Ted Kennedy called this new senator and said, ‘I just wanted to let you know that I’m chairman of the Immigration subcommittee. You’re on Judiciary, I need you on there.’”

Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) have also backed the framework.

Kennedy led the Senate effort to reform the nation’s immigration laws in 1965, when Congress ended the quota system that favored immigrants from Northern European countries.

He teamed up with McCain 40 years later to guide a comprehensive immigration reform proposal through the Senate in 2006, but it stalled in the House.

Kennedy allied with then-Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) in 2007 to resuscitate the legislation, but it failed to pass the Senate that year.

The Kennedy-McCain bill from 2006 would have legalized unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. for more than five years if they passed background checks, demonstrated English proficiency and paid fines.

Illegal immigrants living in the country between two and five years would have had to return to their home countries and apply for readmission to the United States.

Critics of the Kennedy-McCain plan, including Roy Beck, the founder of NumbersUSA, denounced it as amnesty and set up a vigorous grassroots lobbying campaign to oppose it.