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Senators Unveil Plan To Fix Immigration System


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

This week, talk of new immigration laws serves as a reminder that timing is everything. Wait until after a momentous election and it becomes possible to discuss an issue that previously seemed impossible.

INSKEEP: In this quiet week between the government's ongoing fiscal storms, President Obama today unveils an immigration plan.

MONTAGNE: A bipartisan group of senators has already made a proposal.

Here's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: It's a rare event in Washington - D.C. bipartisan political compromise. Eight senators, four Democrats and four Republicans laid out a plan to fix the country's legal immigration system, improve border security and provide what they called a tough but fair path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented workers currently in the U.S.

Here's Democrat Senator Chuck Schumer.

SENATOR CHUCK SCHUMER: The key to our compromise is to recognize that Americans overwhelmingly oppose illegal immigration and support legal immigration.

LIASSON: Schumer said the reason his bipartisan group was finally able to reach consensus was simple.

SCHUMER: The politics on this issue have been turned upside down. For the first time ever, there's more political risk in opposing immigration reform than in supporting it.

LIASSON: Republican Senator John McCain, who's worked on this issue for years, spoke to those in his own party who consider any legalization to be amnesty when he said we already have de facto amnesty and that's unacceptable.

SENATOR JOHN MCCAIN: We have been too content for too long to allow individuals to mow our lawn, serve our food, clean our homes, and even watch our children while not affording them any of the benefits that make our country so great. Let's create a system to bring them forward, allow them to settle their debt to society. This is consistent with our country's tradition of being a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants.

LIASSON: The plan would make a path to legalization contingent on border security and it's not clear exactly how that would be certified or how long it would take. But agricultural workers and young people brought here illegally as children would be put on a speedier timetable. Immigration advocates welcomed the proposal.

Hector Figueroa with the Service Employees Union said there will be a grass roots organizing effort to get the plan passed.

HECTOR FIGUEROA: We are going to be mobilizing. We are going to do what democracy does best. And then eventually at the end of that process we want to see families united, people who have been here for years with the path to citizenship that they can attain. And we trust that we can be able to do it.

LIASSON: On April 10, Figueroa said, supporters will hold a big rally at the Capitol - a not so subtle reminder of the growing political clout of Hispanics. President Obama won the Hispanic vote by 3-1 this fall and the share of Hispanic voters will only be larger in the next election. Today the president unveils his own proposal, which will closely mirror the Senate plan. Mr. Obama spoke about immigration in his inaugural address.

PRESIDENT: Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity, until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country.

LIASSON: Immigration reform has foundered before, most recently when President George W. Bush tried and failed to pass a bill. Former Clinton White House aide Bill Galston is amazed at the sea change.

BILL GALSTON: Who would've thought five years ago that immigration reform, comprehensive immigration reform, would turn out to be the least contested issue in the first year of a Democratic president's second term.

LIASSON: Least contested but not uncontested. There's bipartisan support in Senate, but there will be strong resistance to immigration reform in the House, where Republicans operate under a different political calculus. While national GOP leaders have decided that their party has to change its position on immigration in order to win elections, in nearly three-quarters of Republican House districts, Hispanics make up less than 10 percent of the voting age population.

Still, House Speaker John Boehner has said it's time to deal with immigration.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.

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