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Gang Of 8 Champion Plan, Declare 'Year Of Immigration Reform'

The "Gang of Eight" senators hold a news conference on Capitol Hill on Thursday to discuss their immigration overhaul bill. The senators, from left, are Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Richard Durbin, D-Ill., John McCain, R-Ariz., Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., Robert Menendez, D-N.J., Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Michael Bennet, D-Colo.
Charles Dharapak

Bipartisan bonhomie broke out Thursday afternoon when four Democratic and four Republican senators made a case for their comprehensive immigration overhaul proposal.

The scene at the Dirksen Senate Office Building stood in marked contrast to the ugly end Wednesday of a smaller cross-party effort to fashion gun legislation that would have expanded background checks and banned assault-style weapons.

"I think 2013 is the year of immigration reform," said GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who, with the other senators, stood in front of representatives of a diverse coalition — from the AFL-CIO to the Chamber of Commerce — that has gotten behind overhaul efforts.

"America is an idea; nobody owns it," Graham said. "We've got to create order out of chaos."

The senators characterized their series of two dozen meetings as tough but straightforward, and with areas of deep compromise save one.

"[The] evening we set aside for the DREAM Act was a pretty short meeting," Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois said. "Everybody said it was time."

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida made a point of addressing his supporters who are skeptical of the proposal, which provides a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants current in the U.S.

"We all wish we didn't have this problem, but we do," he said. "Leaving things the way they are, that's the real amnesty."

Rubio, seen as key to the bill's forward motion, said that no one has the right to illegally immigrate to the U.S., but that those here are not going to be deported.

It is "in our national interest" to bring people "out of the shadows," he said. "This is who we are. We are the most compassionate nation on earth."

When asked why the immigration bill won't simply meet the same partisan fate as gun legislation, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona pointed to his party's political reality.

"A little straight talk here," he said. "Republicans have got to compete for the Hispanic voter."

McCain and the other senators portrayed the bill as a document of hard-earned compromise, but one that is far from a final product — and one that will face efforts by opponents to insert amendments that would kill the thing.

Said Graham, the South Carolina Republican: "We're going to be aggressive in marketing the bill. This is an all hands on deck approach."

New York Sen. Charles Schumer, the Democrat who with McCain led the bill-writing effort, said that the issue is "ours to lose."

"I think we have a great product here," he said. "I don't think it's at all like gun control — it has broader support on a broader basis than guns did."

The 844-page bill is expected to be debated over the next few months.

"We're either gonna get a bill," Graham said, "or have one hell of a fight."

Here are some highlights from the legislation:

Path To Citizenship And Border Security

  • Temporary status available to qualified undocumented immigrants when border security and fencing benchmarks are reached.
  • Require background checks, fingerprints, $2,000 in fines, pay taxes, prove employment and physical presence in U.S. before 2012, and a start at the "back of the line" to qualify for temporary status.
  • Permanent resident status available after 10 years, provided border security and employment verification "triggers" met; no federal benefits during temporary status; and applicant proves he or she is earning 25 percent above poverty line.
  • Status revoked if applicant commits serious crime, fails to comply with work, tax, and physical presence requirements.
  • DREAM Act Young Undocumented Immigrants

  • Create five-year path to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants brought by parents to U.S. illegally or in the country on expired visas.
  • Revamp Visa Programs, From Farm Workers To Entrepreneurs

  • Up to 10,000 new "start up" visas for foreign entrepreneurs who create a minimum of five jobs and raise a half million dollars from investors.
  • More visas for highly skilled foreigners with advanced degrees.
  • Increase the number of H-1B visas awarded annually from 65,000 to 110,000, in part to bump up to 25,000 visas available for those in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
  • Eliminate "certain categories" of family immigration preferences, and eliminate diversity visa lottery.
  • Require business owners to use a Labor Department posting website to seek out American workers before taking foreign workers.
  • Establish low-skilled guest-worker program and new agricultural-guest-worker visa program that allows undocumented farm workers to obtain legal status.
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    Liz Halloran joined NPR in December 2008 as Washington correspondent for Digital News, taking her print journalism career into the online news world.
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