America’s immigration system has been in need of an overhaul for decades. The last major immigration reform took place under President Ronald Reagan, when he signed a 1986 law that allowed three to five million undocumented immigrants to live legally in the United States. But, since then little has been accomplished.
That’s because of ongoing political disagreement among Washington lawmakers on just how to solve the problem of more than 11 million people still living in the United States without authorization. On Monday, eight Republican and Democratic senators unveiled a plan, they hope will change just that.
It was a rare display of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill. Democratic senator, Charles Schumer told reporters, “We’ve got a long way to go but it is a major breakthrough.”
Republican Senator, John McCain echoed his colleague calling the group’s plan, “a first step in what will continue to be a difficult but achievable process.”
Their plan to overhaul America’s immigration system includes making sure those entering the US do not over stay their visas. It also will hold accountable employers who hire undocumented workers.
But, most importantly, it’s a plan that these senators say would allow 11 million illegal immigrants a chance to stay in the US.
Democratic Senator, Robert Menendez cautioned that the process of gaining citizenship, which will include background checks, paying back taxes and providing work history, won’t be easy. “This will be an arduous pathway, but it will be a fair one,” he told Congressional reporters.
The Senate plan comes one day before US President Barack Obama is set to announce what is expected to be a similar blueprint for immigration reform that the White House calls a top priority to pass into law.
“We will be working with Congress to help bring about a result…that this president can sign,” said White House Press Secretary, Jay Carney.
Obama won a second term in part because he won strong support from Latinos. But, his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, did not. During the election campaign, he called on undocumented residents to self deport and opposed allowing some children of illegal immigrants a chance to become citizens.
Monday’s sudden pragmatism on the immigration issue by many Republicans may have more to do with election results, than a genuine concern about allowing 11 million undocumented immigrants to live in the US legally.
It seems after the poor showing in November’s polls, Republicans have started to realize hostility toward immigrants is bad politics, especially when Latinos are the fastest growing demographic in the US electorate.
"Elections. Elections," Republican Senator, John McCain said on Capitol Hill. "The Republican Party is losing the support of our Hispanic citizens and we realize that there are many issues on which we think we are in agreement with our Hispanic citizens but this is a preeminent issue with those citizens."
President Obama overwhelmingly won the support of Latinos last year, taking 71% compared to 27% for Mitt Romney. It’s strong incentive for Republicans traditionally opposed to working with Democrats to at least attempt compromise while fine tuning the Republican message to appeal to a wider group of constituents that includes Latinos and other minority groups.
Laura Vasquez, an immigration policy analyst, for one of America’s biggest Hispanic civil rights groups, the National Council of La Raza, said, “That's the strong signal that came out of the election. It was a rejection of policies that tried to demonize a group of people.
And so when Latino voters went to the polls on election day, they had the economy and jobs on their minds, but clearly what's in their hearts is immigration. The results of the election created this momentum or created the space for talking about immigration reform.”
Still, comprehensive immigration reform in the United States is far from certain. Even if it does pass the Senate in the spring or summer as the group of Senators hopes, it still needs to clear the Republican controlled House of Representatives before it can become law.
This is already proving to be a major challenge as some Republican members of Congress are vowing not to support the plans they say amounts to amnesty and a reward for breaking the law.