A bipartisan group of senators has agreed on a set of principles for a sweeping overhaul of the immigration system, including a pathway to U.S. citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants that would hinge on progress in securing the borders and ensuring that foreigners leave the country when their visas expire.
The senators were able to reach a deal by incorporating the Democrats' insistence on a single comprehensive bill that would not deny eventual citizenship to illegal immigrants, with Republican demands that strong border and interior enforcement had to be clearly in place before Congress could consider legal status for illegal immigrants.
Their blueprint, set to be unveiled today, will allow them to stake out their position one day before President Barack Obama outlines his immigration proposals in a speech Tuesday in Las Vegas, in the opening moves of what lawmakers expect will be a protracted and contentious debate on the issue in Congress this year.
Lawmakers said they were optimistic that the political mood had changed since a similar effort collapsed in acrimony in 2010. Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and one of the negotiators, said he saw "a new appreciation" among Republicans of the need for an overhaul.
"Look at the last election," McCain said Sunday morning on ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos." "We are losing dramatically the Hispanic vote, which we think should be ours." The senator also said he had seen "significant improvements" in border enforcement.
He added, "We can't go on forever with 11 million people living in this country in the shadows in an illegal status."
According to a five-page draft of the plan obtained by The New York Times on Sunday, the eight senators -- including McCain; Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat; and Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican -- have agreed to address the failings of the immigration system in one comprehensive measure, rather than in smaller pieces, and to offer a "tough, fair and practical road map" that would eventually lead to a chance at citizenship for nearly all illegal immigrants.
"We on the Democratic side have said that we are flexible and we want to get a bill," Schumer told reporters on Sunday in New York. "But there's a bottom line, and that's a path to citizenship for the 11 or so million people who qualify. We've made great, great progress with our Republican colleagues."
Under the senators' plan, most illegal immigrants would be able to apply to become permanent residents -- a crucial first step toward citizenship -- but only after certain border enforcement measures have been accomplished. Among the plan's new proposals is the creation of a commission of governors, law enforcement officials and community leaders from border states that would assess when border security measures have been completed.
The lawmakers intend for their proposals to frame the debate in the Senate, which is expected to take up immigration this spring, ahead of the House of Representatives.
In a parallel effort, a separate group of four senators will introduce a bill this week dealing with another thorny issue that is likely to be addressed in a comprehensive measure: visas for legal immigrants with advanced skills in technology and science. The bill, written primarily by Sens. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, and Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, would nearly double the number of temporary visas, known as an H-1B, available each year to highly skilled immigrants.
In a sign of the rapidly changing mood in Washington on immigration, the two groups of senators and the White House have been vying in recent days to see who would unveil their proposals first.
Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who was one of those negotiating the comprehensive principles, said the senators finally agreed that any legislation should include a pathway to citizenship.
"First of all, Americans support it, in poll after poll," said Menendez, who was interviewed along with McCain by Stephanopoulos on Sunday. "Secondly, Latino voters expect it. Thirdly, Democrats want it. And fourth, Republicans need it."
Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, also joined the group of eight senators in recent weeks and endorsed its principles. Rubio, a Cuban-American who is a fast-rising figure in his party, had insisted on including the exit tracking system as one of the triggers for opening the path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Rubio cited estimates that as many as 40 percent of immigrants in the country illegally had overstayed their visas.
Rubio also insisted that any immigrants who gained legal status under the legislation would "be required to go to the back of the line" behind other immigrants who applied to come through legal channels.
Still ahead are difficult negotiations over how long immigrants who gain provisional status would have to wait before they could become citizens.