A bipartisan group of senators has agreed to an immigration reform framework that includes a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented, a significant step toward a sweeping overhaul of the nation's immigration system.
The group of eight senators -- four Democrats and four Republicans -- identified broad ways to address the core issues facing the country's immigration laws in a four-plus page document, which Senate aides provided to ABC/Univision on condition of anonymity.
The principles agreed upon by this "Gang of Eight" include enhancing border security and cracking down on businesses that employ undocumented immigrants. The outline also proposes making it easier for foreigners to come to the United States legally to work or join their families.
The senators behind the framework include John McCain (R-Ariz.), who helped lead a failed reform effort in 2007, Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.)
"Our legislation acknowledges these realities by finally committing the resources needed to secure the border, modernize and streamline our current legal immigration system, while creating a tough but fair legalization program for individuals who are currently here," the outline states. "We will ensure that this is a successful permanent reform to our immigration system that will not need to be revisited."
The "Gang of Eight" plan provides the most concrete outline yet for immigration reform, but it also leaves many questions unanswered, such as the amount of time the pathway to citizenship would take and how exactly the border would be deemed secure. Those details and others not included in the plan "would all be subject to negotiation," a Senate aide said.
Since last November's election, the senators have met five times in order to flesh out the plan, according to a Senate aide. That election, in which more than seven in 10 Latino voters supported President Barack Obama over his Republican opponent Mitt Romney, served as a tipping point on the issue of immigration, which has stalled on Capitol Hill for some time.
Republicans have generally dismissed a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants as "amnesty," and President Obama failed to present a comprehensive immigration reform bill during his first term, despite pledging to bring up a proposal during his 2008 campaign. But his re-election might have shaken the political dynamics underlying the immigration issue enough to allow lawmakers to reach an agreement this year.
"First, Americans support it in poll after poll. Secondly, Latino voters expect it. Thirdly, Democrats want it. And fourth, Republicans need it," Menendez said on ABC's "This Week."
Senate staff from both parties characterized the document as a broad statement of principles rather than concrete legislative language, and one aide said that the group aims to have an actual piece of legislation ready as early as the end of March.
The senators' announcement comes one day before President Obama will travel to Las Vegas, Nevada, to unveil his own immigration reform plan, which also includes an earned pathway to citizenship and many other elements of the Senate plan. The president met with a group of Hispanic Democratic lawmakers to discuss his plan on Friday, and afterward the White House reiterated that the issue remains "a top legislative priority."
Arguably the most significant detail is the inclusion of a pathway to citizenship for many of the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants, but the process of obtaining citizenship is neither easy nor short.
Under the "Gang of Eight" plan, undocumented immigrants would be required to register with the federal government. Those without a criminal record would be eligible for "probationary legal status" if they pass a background check and pay fines and back taxes. The status would allow them to live and work legally in the U.S., but they would remain ineligible for federal benefits such as welfare of Medicaid.
At the same time, the government would spend more to prevent illegal border crossings in part by increasing the use of unmanned drones and hiring more border agents. It would also implement a new system to prevent people from overstaying their visas, a main source of illegal immigration. Those undocumented immigrants with criminal records would be subject to deportation.
The U.S. government already spends a hefty amount on border security. The nearly $18 billion in federal funds that went toward border and immigration enforcement agencies in fiscal year 2012 topped the total amount spent on all other federal law enforcement agencies combined, according to a recent Migration Policy Institute report.
Still, many Republican lawmakers have said they would not support an immigration reform proposal without bolstered border security efforts.
The plan would also establish a committee of governors and other public figures from states along the Southwest border to present a "recommendation regarding when the bill's security measures outlined in the legislation are completed." Once the border is deemed secure, undocumented immigrants on probationary status would be permitted to seek green cards, which provide permanent legal residence and the eventual opportunity to apply for full citizenship.
In order to earn a green card, those with probationary legal status would have to go through a second background check, learn English and American civics, continue to pay taxes, and provide proof of employment. These immigrants would then be sent to the "back of the line," meaning that they would only be eligible for a green card once all others waiting for a green card at the time of the law's passage have obtained one.
This system would not apply to all undocumented immigrants. For example, those brought to the country as minors, also known as DREAMers, "will not face the same requirements as other individuals in order to earn a path to citizenship." Undocumented workers in the agricultural sector would also be eligible for their own path to citizenship "because of the role they play in ensuring that Americans have safe and secure agricultural products to sell and consume," the framework says.
The proposal would also make the legal immigration system more attractive by reducing visa backlogs and simplifying the visa process for those seeking to work in the U.S. or reunite with their families.
Foreigners who earn Ph.Ds or master's degrees from American universities in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics (STEM) fields would get green cards upon graduation under the new law.
All that said, employers would be mandated to use an employment verification system to determine the legal status of job applicants. Businesses that knowingly hire undocumented immigrants would also face stiffer criminal penalties under the new law. It remains unclear whether the Senate framework would keep the existing E-Verify system, which has been criticized by business groups for being inefficient, or scrap it and create a new one.
The plan would establish programs for agricultural businesses and others in that industry to hire legal, low-skilled immigrant laborers based on need. It would also provide "labor protections" as well as a path to citizenship for some. Both of these are key given that as many as 80 percent of field workers in the U.S. are undocumented, according to a 2011 Associated Press report.
Lawmakers involved in the group indicated on Sunday that they would prefer to accomplish immigration reform in one, comprehensive bill rather than a series of individual pieces of legislation.
Still, some members of the group have voiced support for a piecemeal approach, including Rubio. But a Republican aide said that a comprehensive approach would not be a "line in the sand" for the Cuban-American senator, whom many believe could run for president in 2016.
Rubio was asked to join the group in December and recently, he released his own set of immigration reform principles. The freshman senator has pitched his plan to conservative media figures like Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly and several of his agenda items made it into the "Gang of Eight" outline, including a program to track exit visas and conditioning green cards for undocumented immigrants on border security.
Lawmakers spent Sunday preparing for the announcement. Schumer informed White House officials on the group's progress and plans for a Monday announcement, a Senate aide said.
In a statement, White House spokesman Clark Stevens said President Obama is "pleased that progress is being made with bipartisan support. At the same time, he will not be satisfied until there is meaningful reform and he will continue to urge Congress to act until that is achieved."
Schumer also spoke with Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt.), whose panel has jurisdiction over immigration laws. The Democratic and Republican leaders of the Senate, Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell, have also been apprised of the talks for some time, aides said.
"We have the bones of this thing, now we have to put on the meat and the muscles," a Senate aide said.