Concerted immigration reform efforts begin next week, with President Obama unveiling a proposal and a bipartisan group of lawmakers working through the weekend to release principles by Friday.
The immigration debate and the fate of any legislation will be so dependent on bipartisan cooperation that the "official" roster of Senate negotiators now leading the charge keeps changing to ensure a balance of Democratic and Republican contributions.
That group now includes Democrats Chuck Schumer of New York, Dick Durbin of Illinois, and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, as well as Republicans John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and—importantly—Marco Rubio of Florida, who has released his own immigration reform principles in recent weeks.
Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., have joined the talks at times but what their role will be when the group releases its principles is still murky.
An overhaul of the system has been identified by both Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as a top priority for this Congress. Since the November elections, a bipartisan group of senators has been meeting with the goal of releasing a set of principles by Feb. 1 that would pave the way for legislation by the end of March.
A Republican aide said the principles released by that working group will be “comprehensive” and address border security, how to deal with the 11-12 million undocumented immigrants in the country, reforming the legal immigration system, employment verification, and a guest-worker program. Another Senate aide indicated that issues will be addressed broadly, with little detail before the process of writing a bill begins.
Though their timing will coincide with the administration’s release of principles, two Republican aides said there has been no coordination, or even discussions, with the White House.
Rubio—whose involvement in the talks had been tenuous in news reports until Friday—was approached in December to join the group. He has met with the other senators several times since then and his staff has been “very engaged” in talks, a Senate Republican aide said.
At the same time, the Florida senator had a unilateral public roll out of his own reform principles, starting with an interview in The Wall Street Journal.
In addition to calls for operational border security and an employment-verification system, Rubio sees a conditional path to citizenship for the millions of illegal immigrants living in the U.S. right now. "They would have to pay a fine, pay back taxes, maybe even do community service. They would have to prove they've been here for an extended period of time. They understand some English and are assimilated. Then most of them would get legal status and be allowed to stay in this country,” he said in the interview, though they would have to go through the legal immigration system to obtain citizenship.
His plan has received favorable reviews—or at least a withholding of criticism—from some Republican lawmakers and conservative talk show hosts who at one time would have objected to any path to citizenship for those living in the U.S. illegally.
Fawn Johnson contributed.
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