Democratic senators sought to reassure skeptics on Thursday that a bipartisan immigration reform plan being crafted in the Senate would not ultimately block a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
The plan -- crafted by a group of four Republicans and four Democrats -- does provide a path to citizenship for many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. Those eligible under the senator's plan would receive "probationary legal status" immediately, but would not be allowed to apply for permanent legal status, or a green card, until the border is deemed to be secure.
But Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), a lead negotiator on immigration reform, said those border security requirements would not be used as a pretext to prevent undocumented immigrants from eventually obtaining citizenship.
"We're not using border security as an excuse or a block to the path to citizenship. We just want to make sure -- and this is very important both substantively and politically -- that there is a secure border, and we're going to work for that," he said during a press conference on Capitol Hill. "[The Gang of Eight] wants to make sure the border is secure, but not to use it as a barrier to prevent the 11 million from eventually gaining a path to citizenship."
Immigrant-rights and Latino groups have voiced concern that the Senate's path could result in an indefinite period of legal limo for undocumented immigrants. President Barack Obama this week released his own plan, which calls for heightened border security measures but refrains from making them a specific precondition in his timeline for a path to citizenship.
But the senators downplayed the notion there is daylight between their plan and the president's. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who has endorsed the so-called "Gang of Eight" Senate plan, said that the president "recognizes" the need for border security as an essential part of a bill.
Schumer said that the president's speech in Las Vegas, Nevada, on Tuesday where he laid out his principles for immigration reform and urged Congress to act, "gave a major boost to our work."
Senators offered more details of how the border security "trigger" to allow undocumented immigrants to earn green cards will be determined. Schumer and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the Senate's second-ranking member and a participant in immigration talks, said that "objective" metrics would be used to judge border security, such as the number of agents stationed on the border, instead of the subjective judgments of public officials.
Schumer said that the secretary of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will have final say over whether those metrics have been met. The DHS secretary oversees several border patrol and immigration enforcement agencies.
A commission of officials from southwestern border states would play an advisory role, but would not be given the legal authority to deem the border secure. Durbin said that assigning "measurable" metrics to border security would increase the chances that the commission and DHS secretary agree that the border is secure.
The senators said that their group continues to make progress on drafting actual legislative language, but that thorny issues such as the path to citizenship, border security metrics and future flows of immigrants have yet to be decided.
Republicans in the group have insisted that the border security requirements be "real" and effective.
"I will not be supporting any law that does not ensure that the enforcement things happen," Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the group, told conservative blogger Ed Morrissey on his web radio show.
The "Gang of Eight" must also navigate tricky political waters on immigration, which has long been a contentious issue on Capitol Hill. Schumer conceded that the group does not yet have the support of "every single Democrat" in the Senate, which could make passing a bill more difficult since Republicans have traditionally been less supportive of comprehensive immigration reform.
But Durbin expressed confidence that the handful of holdouts would come around.
"I think you may be pleasantly surprised. At least one of them has come up to me and said, 'I'm open this time,'" Durbin told reporters, but declined to name the senator.
Proponents of immigration reform also face a tougher task in the House of Representatives, which is controlled by Republicans. But Schumer said that his group has talked to a counterpart group of lawmakers in the House working on a bill as well as the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. The New York senator said that if the Senate passes a bill by late spring or early summer, that would give the House "ample time" to pass a bill by the end of the year.
Reid said that he would use all his political will to get a bill passed.
"I'm committed to getting this bipartisan issue that we now have before us over the finish line,"he said.