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SoCal Hispanic Leaders Hopeful, Cautiously Optimisitc

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Latino leaders in Southern California were reacting positively Monday to a bipartisan group of leading senators' announcement that it was ready to move forward on a sweeping overhaul of immigration laws, including a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants already in this country.

Although immigration reform is nothing new in the national debate and has stalled repeatedly in recent years, some observers say the time may finally be right to allow undocumented immigrants a reasonable way to change their status.

"I am extremely hopeful," said Danny Diaz, director of the League of United Latin American Citizens in California, the largest Latino civil rights non-profit organization in the United States.

Citing the changing political climate and the emergence of Latinos as a political force, Diaz said he is as optimistic as he has ever been.

"Eleven million people will be able to come out of the shadows and be a part of the American tapestry, the beautiful American tapestry," Diaz said.

While the deal that was announced by Republican and Democratic senators also covers border security, non-citizen or "guest" workers and employer verification of immigration status, it was the always contentious citizenship question that mattered most to immigrant advocates.

"We thank this bipartisan group of Republicans and Democrats for understanding that a road map to citizenship is essential to any immigration reform plan," said Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers.

Diaz agreed that with any offer of reform, "you have to include a path to citizenship."

And he added "it must be dignified."

"We're willing to do whatever is needed," he said, "but it has to be responsible and just."

Angelica Salas, executive director for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, a regional immigrant and human rights organization, said in a statement that "A key building block to overhauling our nation's immigration laws has been laid and a movement to create a path to citizenship for millions of unauthorized immigrants living in the US is inching forward for the first time in at least two decades."

Some who have been down this road before are taking a wait-and-see approach. They remember 2007 when late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and current supporter of the new effort Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., brought forth a failed proposal for immigration reform.

"The proposal today is similar to what was unveiled in 2006 and 2007. It starts on a pretty solid basis," said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a UC Riverside political scientist who studies immigration. "The big question is what happens in the House of Representatives, because it is controlled by Republicans."

"It's like a carrot," Amelia Nieto, executive director of Long Beach assistance agency Centro Shalom, said of promises of reform and paths to citizenship. "I don't get excited anymore. We really thought this was going to happen when (President George W.) Bush was in office."

Diaz, however, said the new Latino political presence, which many say was a strong factor in Republican political defeats in the most recent elections, could carry the day.

"I think we have more bite, more beef," he said. "People used to say, 'Latinos don't vote.' No, they vote and we're growing big time."

Senators who announced the agreement Monday acknowledged they were in the very early process and many pitfalls still loomed.

However, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said while other groups of politicians has "trumpeted similar proposals," he said "We believe this is the year Congress will finally get it done."

But the senators quickly encountered a cool reaction from other lawmakers, including Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who said immigration legislation is too important to be written in a back room.

Although myriad prickly issues remain on the table, most lawmakers agree the nation's inefficient patchwork of immigration laws don't work.

President Barack Obama, who will publicly discuss the initiative Tuesday, is committed to enacting comprehensive immigration legislation and will travel to Nevada on

Tuesday to lay out his vision, which is expected to overlap in important ways with the Senate effort.

Besides McCain and Schurmer, the senators who endorsed the new principles Monday were Democrats 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.

According to the bipartisan framework released Monday, there are four goals:

Creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already here, contingent upon securing the border through increased use of drones and other technology, and better tracking of people here on visas.

Reforming the legal immigration system, including awarding green cards to immigrants who obtain advanced degrees in science, math, technology or engineering from an American university.

Creating an effective employment verification system to ensure that employers do not hire undocumented immigrants in the future, including requiring prospective workers to verify legal status and identity through a non-forgeable electronic system.

Allowing more low-skill workers into the country and allowing employers to hire immigrants if they can demonstrate they couldn't recruit a U.S. citizen; and establishing an agricultural worker program.

Glenn Spencer, the founder and president of Arizona-based American Border Patrol, said border security is paramount and that it is currently laughably inadequate. He contends that 750 undocumented immigrants per day successfully cross the border and evade detention each day near Tucson alone.

"It's out of control," Spencer said. "There has been a surge since August (when the Dream Act was announced) and we would expect a huge surge if amnesty were offered. We believe it's a bad idea to even talk about it."

However, Spencer adds that if Congress can come to an agreement on what constitutes a secure border and proves it can secure the border, he supports a path to legalization.

Spencer said the American people have "great compassion" and would support amnesty if they could reasonably be assured the border was secured and "that's the end of it."

Schurmer made a point to stress that while the path to citizenship will be long and difficult, it was important to note that as soon as legislation is passed, the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the country would have "the legal right to stay here and work and no longer be harassed."

Again Nieto says she has seen promises come and go in the past.

"If there's good news, it will reach me fast," she said. "If there's bad news, it will reach me faster."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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