On the eve of President Barack Obama's long-awaited immigration reform
proposal, political leaders and activists in Wisconsin reacted with optimism
-- tempered by caution -- to a plan released Monday by U.S. senators that
outlined a "tough but fair" path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented
The senators' framework for overhauling the nation's immigration laws is just five pages. It calls for securing the border, addressing visa overstays, creating an effective system for employers to verify immigration status, allowing more low-skill workers into the country and establishing an agricultural worker program.
Once the border is secured, a path to citizenship would be created for those already here illegally. It would include passing a background check and paying fines and taxes to qualify for "probationary status" that could lead to permanent residency or a green card after others already in line.
The senators' proposal and Tuesday's announcement by the president come amid a rapidly shifting political environment, driven by the results of November's elections, in which Obama and other Democrats capitalized on their popularity with Hispanics. Obama got 71% of the Latino vote in November compared with 27% for Republican Mitt Romney. Many Republicans have acknowledged that improving their standing is critical.
"Elections, elections," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of the eight co-sponsors of the legislation. "The Republican Party is losing the support of our Hispanic citizens. And we realize that there are many issues on which we think we are in agreement with our Hispanic citizens, but this is a pre-eminent issue with those citizens."
In addition to McCain, the sponsors are Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida, Jeff Flake of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Democrats Charles Schumer of New York, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Richard Durbin of Illinois and Robert Menendez of New Jersey.
Several have worked for years on the issue. The group claims a notable newcomer in Rubio, a potential 2016 presidential candidate whose conservative bona fides may help smooth the way for support among conservatives.
Still, passage by the Democratic-controlled Senate is far from assured, and a taller hurdle could come later in the House, which is dominated by conservative Republicans who've shown little interest in immigration overhaul.
Rachel Buff, an associate professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and an expert in immigration and immigration history, said it was the organized Latino electorate that was responsible for insisting comprehensive immigration reform be dealt with.
"The biggest evidence is Senator Marco Rubio's awareness that immigration reform has to be priority, and the president made that clear in his inaugural address," she said.
But she said she's concerned that border security has to be first and that there's no definition of when that's achieved. She said there are also concerns that electronic verification of a person's identity could lead to a national ID.
The senators' plan is expected to closely align with one the president will unveil Tuesday. The White House called the Senate proposal a "big deal" because it embraces a path to citizenship.
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