Washington: A bipartisan group of eight prominent senators has laid out an ambitious overhaul of the patchwork US immigration system that would balance tougher border enforcement with creating a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants and new opportunities for seasonal farm-workers to gain legal status.
The senators beat Barack Obama to the punch, scrambling to unveil their plan a day before the President was scheduled to outline his own proposal in Nevada, a western state with a rising tide of Hispanic residents.
While only in his first term, the star of the senators' group was Marco Rubio of Florida, a charismatic Cuban-American who has tied his political fortunes and a potential 2016 White House run to his dramatic life story as the son of political refugees from Fidel Castro.
The high-powered group also included the second- and third-ranked Senate Democrats, Richard Durbin of Illinois and Charles Schumer of New York, along with 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain of Arizona and Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolinian with a reputation as a maverick willing to work across party lines on tough issues.
Democratic senators Robert Menendez of New Jersey, also of Cuban descent, and Michael Bennet of Colorado joined the group, as did Republican senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, just starting his first Senate term.
Senator Schumer said this may be the year Congress finds a breakthrough on a problem that has vexed the nation's leaders for a quarter-century.
"The politics on this issue have been turned upside down," Senator Schumer said. "For the first time ever, there is more political risk in opposing immigration reform than in supporting it."
The new bipartisan plan would allow the country's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants to obtain a green card only after fulfilling a number of requirements: registering with the government; passing a criminal background check; settling back taxes; and paying a fine for having entered the US improperly.
If they met the first standards, undocumented immigrants would get in line behind green card applicants already pursuing legal residency. They would then have to learn English and US civics, show a record of past and current employment, and pass another background check.
The plan has a significant new element that was not part of the 2007 initiative: undocumented farm-workers who "have been performing very important and difficult work to maintain America's food supply while earning subsistence wages" could earn a path to citizenship through a different and presumably more lenient visa process for agricultural workers.