By Alexander Bolton - 04/29/10 11:56 PM EDT
Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and other Democrats made that pledge as they unveiled their outline of an immigration reform plan, which has been widely viewed as a political exercise to help Reid and other Democrats with Hispanic voters, a growing electoral bloc.
Democratic strategists say the issue is not a clear winner like the Wall Street reform bill; Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the plan’s primary author, acknowledged that dealing with an estimated 10.8 million illegal residents is “morally complex” and “politically explosive.”
Even so, Democrats see it as more divisive for the Republican Party, which is under pressure from Tea Party conservatives to be tough on illegal immigrants but also does not want to lose Hispanic voters.
“In the past several weeks, pundits and columnists, reporters have almost all been saying the prospects for comprehensive immigration reform looked weak. I completely disagree,” Schumer said.
Lawmakers downplayed politics and challenged Republicans to help them fix “a broken system,” taking a similar approach to the argument they used to persuade GOP lawmakers to begin debate on Wall Street reform.
“What I say to my Republican colleagues: Work with us to fix this broken system, secure our borders and do other things that we’ve got to do; don’t just say no,” Reid said at a press conference late Thursday.
Reid emphasized that Schumer had put together his proposal after “months” of negotiations with Republicans.
“Those negotiations have been built on the bipartisan work of Senate colleagues in previous years,” Reid said, making reference to legislative pushes that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) made during George W. Bush’s presidency.
That line was similar to the argument Reid and other Democrats made in recent days by highlighting the contributions of Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) to the Wall Street reform bill.
In a bid to win GOP support, Democrats say they have made securing the nation’s borders the top priority in the bill.
The bill focuses on three areas: It would tighten security along the nation’s northern and southern borders; register illegal immigrants with the federal government and set them on a path to citizenship if they pay fines, learn English and stay out of criminal trouble; and crack down on employers who hire illegal workers.
“Our proposal will require the government to secure the border first before we adjust the status of a single person here illegally — just what many of our colleagues are saying on the other side of the aisle,” said Schumer, who insisted the border security proposals he is advancing are tougher than those considered during Bush’s tenure.
Schumer also highlighted a proposal to implement a
nationwide worker-verification program, which would require every worker to
carry a national identification card with biometric information within six
That proposal has already drawn fire from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), but Schumer said it is essential to stem the tide of illegal workers.
“Our proposal recognizes that no matter what we do on the border, we’ll only succeed in dramatically reducing future illegal immigration by creating an employment verification system that holds employers accountable for knowingly hiring illegal workers,” he said.
The ACLU panned the proposal in a press statement earlier in the day, saying it would “usher government into the very center of our lives.”
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said in an earlier interview that it was not realistic to expect the federal government to completely secure the border with Mexico.
“It’s a challenge beyond description to say we’re going to stop every single truck and car and to make sure they’re not harboring illegal immigrants,” Durbin said. “But we can commit ourselves, and this bill does, to dramatically increasing the resources in that effort to show we’re serious about it.”
Some immigration groups greeted the legislative framework warily because of the strict employment-verification measure and other restrictions on immigrants but acknowledged it as an important first step.
“The proposal revealed today is in part the result of more than a year of bipartisan negotiations and represents a possible path forward on immigration reform,” Ali Noorani, executive director of Reform Immigration for America.
“This framework is not there yet,” Noorani added.
Reid said that he expected President Barack Obama to fully support the effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform, despite comments from the president Wednesday that some in the media interpreted as a splash of cold water on the idea.
“I don't want us to do something just for the sake of politics that doesn't solve the problem,” Obama told reporters Wednesday night aboard Air Force One.
A Democratic source close to the White House said the president was completely supportive, pointing to a statement Obama issued Thursday.
“The proposal outlined today in the Senate is a very important step in the process of fixing our nation’s broken immigration system,” Obama said.
Some liberal groups have called for more involvement from the president on the issue.
“The other player that has to come to the front and center is the White House,” said Angela Kelley, vice president for immigration policy at the Center for American Progress.
Earlier in the day, Durbin said Obama could help bring Republicans on board.
“I think the White House can help us with this,” Durbin said. “I don’t know if they’re inclined to, but I think they can help us by finding those Republicans who are willing to step up and tackle a challenging issue.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who had been negotiating with Schumer on the issue, pulled back in recent days, voicing frustration about the prospect of Democrats moving an immigration bill ahead of energy reform.
Schumer has since met with other Republicans. He met with Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) on Thursday, who voiced interest in the framework’s labor provisions, Schumer said.