Washington, DC -- From the halls of Congress to the streets of Los Angeles, supporters of a plan to legalize the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants celebrated a rare glimmer of hope Monday as a bipartisan group of legislators outlined a broad plan to overhaul the nation's immigration laws for the first time in a generation.
As President Obama prepared to deliver his own immigration push during a speech in Las Vegas Tuesday, many felt a sense of euphoria at the prospect of the first nationwide, comprehensive immigration plan since the Reagan administration.
WHAT THE PLAN WOULD DO
The plan laid out Monday was the result of two months of negotiations between eight senators. In addition to McCain, the senators included: Democrats Charles Schumer of New York, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado; and Republicans Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Marco Rubio of Florida and Jeff Flake of Arizona.
Their proposal creates a path to citizenship for many of the 11 million illegal immigrants living in the USA, changes the legal immigration system to give more low- and high-skilled workers access to visas, creates a system so employers can easily check the immigration status of prospective workers and further secures the nation's borders.
If passed, all illegal immigrants who pass a criminal background check would be allowed to live and work in the country. After Congress is assured that the border has been controlled, then those immigrants could file for a green card after they've paid back taxes and learned English and civics, among other requirements. Then, they could apply to become full U.S. citizens.
Schumer said their goal is to file their bill by March and pass the bill by summer.
The plan was hailed by a vast cross-section of groups that have come together in recent months to support widespread changes to the country's immigration laws.
Religious and immigrant rights groups praised the plan as a moral imperative for people who have been living in the country with few rights and the constant threat of deportation hanging over their heads.
"Let us welcome in the stranger," said Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, a Catholic social justice lobby.
Minority groups saw the proposal as another solution to the civil rights battles the U.S. has fought for so long. "We in the black community understand what it's like to be mistreated and exploited and treated as second-class citizens," NAACP President Benjamin Jealous said.
Business and labor groups praised the plan as a way to help businesses more easily attract the workers they need, and can't find, in America. U.S. Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue said the group "strongly supports" the senators' proposal and that its members will help "build public support."
Microsoft general counsel Brad Smith commended the bipartisan proposal as a way to "better position America to compete and win in our global economy."
Even some Republicans not involved in the Senate negotiations expressed support.
Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., has been working on a bipartisan version of an immigration plan with some of his House colleagues for years and sounded enthusiastic about the Senate proposal.
"Reasonable people who want to get this done will reach very similar conclusions, and that's what you're seeing everywhere and this reflects that," he said. "I'm very pleased."
NOT SO FAST
But critics are feeling a bit of déjà vu.
"They copy and pasted Bush's amnesty plan," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which opposes a pathway to citizenship.
Key differences: The 2007 bill would have curtailed the ability of legalized immigrants to bring their relatives to the U.S., and guest worker visas would have been awarded on a "points system" that measured the value of each potential immigrant and their field of work.
There was also no requirement to secure the border before immigrants could apply to become a legal permanent resident.
Republicans have been wary of any legalization plan ever since a 1987 bill passed by Congress and signed into law by President Reagan granted legal status to 3 million illegal immigrants. What it didn't do was secure the border, and that failure opened the door to today's fight.
Rosemary Jenks, director of government relations for NumbersUSA, an immigration research group, said that no matter how many assurances the senators make that the border will be secured, House Republicans will have trouble getting past the simple idea of "amnesty."
"That's going to be a sticking point," she said. "I think there was a misinformed panic after the election where Republicans were told ... 'The only way you're going to get the Latino vote is to pass an amnesty.' There's zero evidence of that. They haven't thought this through."
The plan specifically states that most illegal immigrants will have to wait for people who have already applied for green cards to have their cases decided.
But Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, was concerned about a part of the proposal that allows illegal immigrants brought to the country as children, and those who work in the agriculture industry, to have a "different" process that was not explained.
The proposal says that agricultural workers are needed to ensure the nation's food supply.
"Maintaining the safety of America's food supply is an important goal, but it is unclear why immigrants in this sector should achieve special status over skilled workers in industries equally important to the American economy," Lee said.
Even some proponents of granting citizenship to illegal immigrants were dissatisfied with the proposal.
Mohammad Abdollahi, 27, has been working as a field organizer for the National Immigration Youth Alliance for years, pushing for the legalization of illegal immigrants. His parents moved him to Ann Arbor, Mich., from Iran when he was 3, and they have since been living in the U.S. on expired visas.
Abdollahi said that though many aspects of the plan worried him, he'll take what he can get.
"It's good that McCain is talking about immigration the right way. We tend to agree with the Rubio platform," he said. "But we're most excited that everyone else is enthusiastic about immigration reform."
But we wanted to know what illegal immigrants in the Triad might think about this proposal and what they think it would mean for them. Reverend David Fraccaro with FaithAction International House works with undocumented workers and says he's excited about the proposal. "I think the most important pieces to understand are that this means that our newest immigrant neighbor may not need to walk or live in the shadows. That they are no longer seen as second class citizens, but as people with dignity and gifts to offer Greensboro and North Carolina."
Erendira Mendez is an administrative assistant at Faithaction International House. She said today's proposal gives her hope. "Hearing the news this morning and hearing that there could be hope for me to ever become a citizen here, it's a great satisfaction. To go out there and not to be afraid that I might be taken away from my daughter that was born here that the hope to see that maybe, one day, I will not be afraid to let my husband go to work and be afraid and pray really hard that he will come back and that nothing bad happens to him."
USA Today/WFMY News 2