US politicians on both sides of the aisle are gearing up for what promises to be a bruising battle over immigration reform, with Barack Obama and senior senators unveiling separate but related plans for comprehensive reform.
Obama travels to Nevada on Tuesday to lay out his package of proposals that would extend to 11 million undocumented immigrants – most of whom are Latino – the hope of finding a way out of the state of limbo in which they are currently trapped. The president has promised to make immigration reform a priority of the coming year.
Obama's plan will play second fiddle to an initiative from eight US senators that, in a careful act of choreography, was launched on Monday to give maximum sense of momentum. The senators' proposals will form the basis of a bill that its backers hope will be introduced to the Senate by March, gain approval of the chamber by late spring or summer and then spend the autumn in the House of Representatives before being sent for the president's signature by the end of the year.
In a five-page draft outline of the principles behind such a bill, the senators said they would create "a tough but fair path to citizenship for unauthorised immigrants currently living in the US that is contingent upon securing our borders and tracking whether legal immigrants have left the country when required".
The senators, who include leading Republicans such as John McCain and Marco Rubio, as well as leading Democrats Chuck Schumer and Dick Durbin, said they hoped to fix a broken immigration system. McCain, who has spearheaded previous failed attempts at reform, said the aim was to "create a tough but fair path to citizenship for those who are here illegally".
At a Washington press conference, McCain said: "What's going on now is unacceptable. In reality, what's been created is de facto amnesty."
Speaking for the Democratic senators, Chuck Schumer said: "We believe this will be the year Congress finally gets this done. The politics of immigration reform had been turned upside down: for the first time ever, there's more political risk [to] opposing immigration reform than supporting it."
The combination of the senators' initiative and Obama's White House push promises to be the most significant attempt at meaningful immigration reform since 2007, when President Bush's effort foundered in the Senate. That the two main parties are even talking again about the subject at a senior level points to a seismic shift in the political plates, particularly for the Republicans.
In the wake of the Tea-Party fuelled Republican takeover of the House in 2010, the GOP grew averse to the idea of immigration reform, which was denounced as a reward for unlawful behaviour. But the drubbing that Mitt Romney received in the November presidential election, in which 71% of Latinos swung behind Obama in evident protest at the anti-immigrant tone adopted by the Republicans, has given many prominent conservatives pause.
McCain was blunt in his assessment of what was shifting opinion within his own party: "Elections. Elections. The Republican party is losing the support of our Hispanic citizens."
Carlos Gutierrez, who led Romney's outreach to the Hispanic community during the presidential election, told the Guardian that the changing stance of many conservatives was palpable. "There is increasing interest among Republicans, and not just for purely political purposes. As a party we have sent some very wrong signals to people we should be helping and celebrating and welcoming."
Gutierrez said that the devil would be in the detail of the Senate bill, and he predicted that despite the new mood of compromise on the Republican side, the battle ahead would be hard. "The details are difficult: that's one of the reasons why nothing has so far been done. But with every day that passes, the human drama gets worse and it's not fair to anyone to ignore this problem any longer."
A potential sticking point for the Republican-dominated House is how precisely to devise a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants already inside the country. Rubio, a senator for Florida who is seen as a Republican presidential hopeful for 2016, has voiced the anxieties of many in his party by saying that undocumented immigrants should not be allowed to "jump the queue" and get ahead of those who have applied through normal legal routes to reside in the US.
The senators' proposals follow Rubio's lead by creating two ring-fenced stages in the transition to citizenship. First, an undocumented immigrant would have to register with the US authorities and pass stringent tests – including a background check to weed out anyone with a criminal record and payment of fines and back taxes – to be awarded a right to work in the US on a probationary basis.
Then, in an entirely separate process, they would be allowed to apply for citizenship. But in doing so they would have to go to the back of the line, learn English and basic American history, and could have to wait for years before earning a green card.
"There are 11 million human beings in this country today who are undocumented," Rubio said at the launch of the senators' plan. "That's not something anyone is happy about, but it is the situation, and we need to find a way of addressing it in a way that is fair to those people who are waiting in line the legal way."
The other area emphasised by the bipartisan senators in their plans, with an eye to undermining Republican resistance in the House, is on tightening security controls at the US border with Mexico to prevent new undocumented immigrants arriving. The proposals call for an increase in the use of drones and surveillance equipment over the border, and a boost in the number of border patrol agents, before any pathway to citizenship would begin.
The idea of pumping in millions of dollars of additional federal spending on border security, following vast investment over the past 10 years, is causing unease among civil liberties groups. The number of border patrol agents has been doubled since 2003, and there are now 10 for every mile of border.
Vicki Gaubeca, a border rights expert with the ACLU, said Obama's first presidential term had committed itself to "border enforcement on steroids". Gaubeca said that the US border with Mexico had seen the introduction of hi-tech wizardry developed in the war zones of Iraq and Afghanistan, such as unmanned drones, ground motion sensors, thermal imaging and night-vision goggles.
"The fact is there's a 40-year low in migrant apprehensions at the border, and now it's time to move on to more pressing issues, such as: what happens to the undocumented people who are already in the country, and how do we devise an immigration policy for the future?" Gaubeca said.
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