A bipartisan group of eight Senators has agreed on the framework for a national immigration system overhaul for this year, and it includes key provisions sought by America's technology and farm industries to attract workers.
In addition, the parameters of future legislation described in a document released Monday would allow a "tough but fair" path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants, increased border security and an improved employer verification system.
The agreement comes from a group of key legislative players: Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Senator Charles Schumer, along with senators John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), one of his party's leaders on immigration.
"We believe this will be the year Congress finally gets it done," Schumer said Monday on Capitol Hill. "The politics on this issue have been turned upside down. For the first time ever there's more risk in opposing immigration reform than supporting it."
The group hopes to have a comprehensive piece of legislation written sometime in March, meaning that today's announcement will set off a flurry of lobbying activity in a push to get individual immigration-related issues included in such a bill.
"We still have a long way to go, but this bipartisan blueprint is a major breakthrough," Schumer said. "We do not want immigration as a wedge issue." While the plan announced today gives a broad outline to future legislation with some specifics, crafting the details of the bill could reestablish some of the long-standing trenches that have stalled immigration reform over the past decade.
For example, the proposal would award a green card to immigrants who have received a doctorate or master's degree in science, technology, engineering, or math from an American university. "It makes no sense to educate the world's future innovators and entrepreneurs only to ultimately force them to leave our country at the moment they are most able to contribute to our economy," the proposal released today states.
Major websites and consumer electronics companies want that, too, but a proposal to do just that was killed in the Senate a month ago.
In December, Senate Democrats killed off the Republican House-sponsored STEM Jobs Act to add 55,000 H-1B visas. Democrats blocked the bill and the White House opposed it because it eliminated the diversity visa program for countries with low immigration rates.
"There are loads of pitfalls," Schumer said at a press conference announcing the agreement.
The proposal also aims to create a separate green card process for agricultural workers, who "will be treated differently than the rest of the undocumented population" because of their role in the long-term stability of the nation's agricultural industries.
The Senate group's plan comes one day before President Barack Obama is expected to detail his immigration plan during an appearance in Las Vegas.
Any bill would also have to get through the Republican-controlled House, where there were already signs of opposition Monday morning. Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the former chairman of the judiciary committee and a member of the immigration subcommittee, said the Senate proposal was compounding the problem.
"When you legalize those who are in the country illegally, it costs taxpayers millions of dollars, costs American workers thousands of jobs and encourages more illegal immigration," Smith said.
McCain said that several things have changed to make this a good opportunity to get reform done, however. The Republican Party is losing the support of Hispanic citizens and there is an increased call for change from the nation. The plan has "little difference" from a plan led by the late Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), McCain said.
"I am confident the majority of both houses, but we’re not going to get everybody on board," McCain said. "We cannot continue as a nation with 11 million people residing in the shadows.
Other proposals agreed upon in the Senate framework included:
The creation of a commission comprised of governors, attorneys general and community leaders living along the Southwest border to monitor the progress of securing our border; an increase the number of unmanned aerial vehicles and surveillance equipment; and a strengthening of prohibitions against racial profiling and inappropriate use of force and increase oversight of border patrol agents.