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Bipartisan Immigration Reform Plan 'A Major Breakthrough'


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

Try and try again. After years of failed attempts to overhaul the nation's immigration laws, a new bipartisan push got going today on Capitol Hill. Eight senators - four of them Democrats, four Republicans - have put together a broad proposal and unveiled it today. The plan would curb illegal immigration and give a path to citizenship to those already here illegally.

We begin our coverage with NPR's David Welna, who reports the GOP's poor showing among Latino voters in November has given the party a new incentive to back immigration reform.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: As five of the eight senators working on immigration reform gathered in a room just off the Senate floor this afternoon, New York Democrat Charles Schumer declared that while they still had a long way to go, their bipartisan blueprint for reform was what he called a major breakthrough.

SENATOR CHARLES SCHUMER: Other bipartisan groups of senators have stood in the same spot before, trumpeting similar proposals. But we believe this will be the year Congress finally gets it done.

WELNA: The group's plan addresses four issues. One is border security. Nothing can move forward with the rest of the plan until it's been determined the borders are secure and visitors are no longer overstaying their visas. Another is to expand opportunities for legal immigrants, especially those with skills or who meet labor shortfalls in the U.S. And it calls for an effective employee identification system.

But as Florida Republican Marco Rubio noted, the biggest and most difficult issue is finding a way to legal status for those who are already in the country illegally.

SENATOR MARCO RUBIO: None of this is possible if we don't address the reality that there are 11 million human beings in this country today that are undocumented. That's not something that anyone is happy about. That's not something anyone wanted to see happen, but it is what has happened. And we have an obligation and the need to address the reality of the situation that we face.

WELNA: Tough but fair is how several senators described the road to citizenship the blueprint lays out for undocumented immigrants. Robert Menendez is a New Jersey Democrat.

SENATOR ROBERT MENENDEZ: This will be an arduous pathway, but it will be a fair one. It will be one in which those who have come to this country to achieve the American dream will come forth, will - must register with the government or they'll lose their opportunities - will have to go through a criminal background check, will have to pay any previous taxes they did not pay.

WELNA: And for the first time, such immigrants will have to learn English to qualify for resident status. But if the immigration proposal becomes law, all undocumented immigrants will be allowed immediately to stay in the country if they pursue becoming citizens. This is tantamount to amnesty for some GOP lawmakers.

But Arizona Republican John McCain says his party cannot afford to ignore one of the central concerns of Latino voters, who chose Democrats over Republicans by a 3-to-1 margin in November.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: The Republican Party is losing the support of our Hispanic citizens, and we realize that there are many issues in which we think we are in agreement with our Hispanic citizens, but this is a pre-eminent issue with those citizens.

WELNA: McCain said he's encouraged that Speaker John Boehner has promised the House will take up immigration reform as well. On the Senate floor this afternoon, majority leader Harry Reid praised his GOP colleagues.

SENATOR HARRY REID: For years, Democrats have been eager to pass comprehensive immigration reform, but the Republicans have been unwilling to work to find common ground. I'm glad things have changed. I am so happy to see my Republican colleagues - at least some of them - finally seem ready to find a bipartisan way to correct the flaws in this nation's immigration system instead of just complaining.

WELNA: Senate Democrats hope to pass a bill in their chamber by late spring or summer. It's not clear when the House might act. In the meantime, outside pro-immigrant groups are planning a march on the Capitol for April 10. Tomorrow, President Obama keeps the pressure on for an immigration overhaul. He'll be speaking in Las Vegas about his own ideas for reform. David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.

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