A bipartisan group of senators on Monday formally unveiled their proposal to drastically overhaul the nation's immigration system, with the hope of passing a bill out of the Senate by late spring or early summer.
"We believe this will be the year Congress finally gets it done," Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) one of the members of the so-called "Gang of Eight" said during a press conference on Capitol Hill.
Five of the eight members of the group -- Schumer, Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- appeared at the press conference intended to outline their immigration proposal. The proposal would provide a path to citizenship for many of the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants while upping border security and cracking down on businesses that hire workers who are not legally present in the U.S.
Sens. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) were the members not in attendance.
The senators all expressed optimism that their legislation could pass both the House and the Senate. Schumer added that he hopes to have an actual piece of legislation done by the end of March, and then have the Senate act on it right away.
But while some conservatives have signaled support for the Senate framework, many others have resisted any plan that could grant a pathway to citizenship to undocumented immigrants, saying it amounts to amnesty for people who broke the law.
The Senate's plan does not grant undocumented immigrants automatic "amnesty," rather it requires them to go through an arduous process that includes undergoing a background check, paying fines, back taxes and learning English and American civics over the course of a number of years. The new law would grant eligible undocumented immigrants permission to live and work in the U.S. legally, but would not confer permanent legal status, or a green card, until the border is deemed to be secure. Young people brought into the U.S. illegally as minors and some agricultural workers would face an easier path to citizenship.
"We will never put these people on a path to citizenship until we have secured the border," Schumer said.
McCain, who helped lead the last effort on a comprehensive immigration bill in 2007 said, "We have been too content for too long to allow individuals to mow our lawns, grow our food, clean our homes, and even watch our children while not affording them any of the benefits that make our country so great."
Senators in both political parties suggested that the reason that some Republicans have had a change of heart was because of the results of last November's election, when seven in 10 Latino voters backed President Barack Obama over Republican Mitt Romney.
"The politics on this issue have been turned upside down," Schumer said. "For the first time ever, there is more political risk in opposing immigration reform, than in supporting it."
Perhaps more than anyone on the stage, McCain understands this. While he backed comprehensive immigration reform five years ago, he backed away from it during his 2010 run for Senate, just as his home state was considering the SB 1070 crackdown law on undocumented immigrants.
McCain went so far as to say that the current plan is a "testimonial" to bill he worked on with Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), the late liberal icon, in 2007.
Another member of the group, Marco Rubio, had not always voiced support for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants during his Senate career. But on Monday, he said that Congress needs to "address the reality" of the massive undocumented population in the U.S.
Many questions remained unresolved, such as how the border will be deemed secure and the future flow of immigrants to the U.S. The "Gang of Eight" plan lists broad principles on those fronts, but senators said Monday that many of the details remain under negotiation. For example, Schumer said that business and labor groups have discussed how many immigrant workers should be allowed to enter the U.S. and those talks continue.
It also remains to be seen how the bill is received in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee that oversees immigration reform, dismissed the Senate plan as an "amnesty proposal. But House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) remained open to the plan, according to Talking Points Memo.
McCain said that members of the group would speak with key members of the lower chamber. He expressed confidence that a majority of both houses would back the proposal, but also acknowledged "we're not going to get everyone on board."
The senator's announcement came one day before President Obama is expected to announce his own immigration reform plan during a speech in Las Vegas, Nevada. While there has been some scuttlebutt in Washington that the Senate group was trying to preempt the president, Schumer dismissed the notion, saying that the president was" delighted" with their proposal when it was presented to him on Sunday.
"We came to an agreement this weekend," Schumer said. "We want to move quickly."
After Rubio and Menendez spoke in Spanish about the plan, McCain cracked a joke that underlined Schumer's point.
"En español, 'Vamanos!'"