President Barack Obama plans to push Congress to move quickly on an overhaul of the immigration system that would include a path to citizenship for most of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country, senior administration officials and lawmakers say.
Obama and Senate Democrats will propose the changes in one bill, the officials said, resisting efforts by some Republicans to break the overhaul into smaller pieces -- separately addressing young illegal immigrants, migrant farmworkers or highly skilled foreigners -- that might be easier for reluctant members of their party to accept.
The president and Democrats will also oppose measures that do not allow immigrants who gain legal status to become U.S. citizens one day, the officials said.
Even while Obama has been focused on fiscal negotiations and gun control, overhauling immigration remains a priority for him this year, White House officials said. Obama and lawmakers from both parties think the early months of his second term offer the best prospects for passing substantial legislation on the issue.
Obama is expected to lay out his plan in the coming weeks, perhaps in his State of the Union address early next month, administration officials said.
The White House will argue that its solution for illegal immigrants is not an amnesty, as many critics insist, because it would include fines, the payment of back taxes and other hurdles for illegal immigrants who would obtain legal status.
The president's plan would also:
Impose nationwide verification of legal status for all newly hired workers.
Add visas to relieve backlogs and allow highly skilled immigrants to stay.
Create some form of guest-worker program to bring in low-wage immigrants in the future.
A bipartisan group of senators has also been meeting to write a comprehensive bill, with the goal of introducing legislation as early as March and holding a vote in the Senate before August.
"This is so important now to both parties that neither the fiscal cliff nor guns will get in the way," said Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat and a leader of the bipartisan discussions.
A similar attempt at bipartisan legislation early in Obama's first term collapsed amid political divisions fueled by surging public wrath over illegal immigration in many states. But both supporters and opponents say conditions are significantly different now.
In the November presidential election, Latinos, the nation's fastest-growing electorate, turned out in record numbers and cast 71 percent of their ballots for Obama. Many Latinos said they were put off by Republicans' harsh language and policies against illegal immigrants.
After the election, a host of Republicans, starting with House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, said it was time for the party to find a more positive, practical approach to immigration. Many party leaders say electoral demographics are compelling them to move beyond policies based only on tough enforcement.
Supporters of comprehensive changes say the elections were nothing less than a mandate in their favor and they are still optimistic that Obama is prepared to lead the fight.
"Republicans must demonstrate a reasoned approach to start to rebuild their relationship with Latino voters," said Clarissa Martinez de Castro, the director of immigration policy at the National Council of La Raza, a Latino organization. "Democrats must demonstrate they can deliver on a promise."
Since the election, Obama has repeatedly pledged to act on immigration this year. In his weekly radio address Saturday, he again referred to the urgency of fixing the immigration system, saying it was one of the "difficult missions" the country must take on.
Parallel to the White House effort, Schumer and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina have been meeting with a group of at least four other colleagues to write a bill.
Basic tenets for the bill, Schumer said, were that it would be comprehensive and would offer eventual citizenship for illegal immigrants who follow a prolonged process to correct their status.
"This is a bottom line," Schumer said in an interview Thursday. "The Democrats have made it clear we will not accept a bill without a direct path to earned citizenship."
In the Republican-controlled House, the future of a comprehensive bill remains unclear.
Rep. Phil Gingrey, a Georgia Republican, said he remained opposed to "amnesty of any kind." He said that the Obama administration had been lax on enforcement and that he would "continue working to secure our borders and enforce existing immigration law."
But groups backing the overhaul say they are bigger and better organized than in the past. Last month, the labor movement, including the AFL-CIO and other sometimes-warring factions, affirmed a common strategy. Last week, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said it would work with labor, Latino and church organizations to pass the overhaul this year.