US immigration deal gains steam on Capitol Hill

Lawmakers from both sides of the US political divide expressed optimism this week about striking a deal on immigration reform in 2013, but a potential pathway to citizenship remains a hurdle.

Senator Rand Paul became the latest Republican since his party's November election drubbing, when more than 70 percent of Hispanic voters supported Democratic President Barack Obama, to call for a comprehensive plan that brings 11 million undocumented migrants out of the shadows toward legalized status.

"Immigration reform will not occur until conservative Republicans, like myself, become part of the solution," Paul told the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday.

Paul, a rising Tea Party Republican who is seen as a potential 2016 presidential candidate, did not mention citizenship in his speech, but he suggested it was time to accept the notion that most immigrants are in the country to stay.

"Prudence, compassion and thrift all point us toward the same goal: bringing these workers out of the shadows and into becoming and being taxpaying members of society," he said.

"If you wish to live and work in America, then we will find a place for you."

Paul's sudden support for comprehensive reform marks a sign that a deal may be imminent, and able to muster enough Senate votes to overcome objections from the Republican old guard, which largely has been wary of expanding the ranks of minority voters.

It also came a day after a sobering assessment by the Republican National Committee, which said the party must "champion comprehensive immigration reform" as part of its effort to attract minorities, Hispanics in particular.

Four Democrats and four Republicans -- including Senator Marco Rubio, a potential Paul rival in 2016 -- are crafting a comprehensive immigration reform bill expected to be introduced in April.

The group, collectively known as the Gang of Eight, condition any steps to legal status on US government action to secure the nation's borders and stem the flow of illegals.

To become law, the reform would need to pass the Republican-controlled House. But House Speaker John Boehner indicated there was important movement in his chamber, saying the leadership met last week with the four Republicans in the House working group on immigration.

"They're essentially in agreement over how to proceed," Boehner said.

While Boehner declined to provide a time frame for the bill, Republican congressman Raul Labrador said the House was moving swiftly, and that potential citizenship should not be seen as an explosive issue.

"What I have told conservatives is that we need to be open-minded about what we do with the 11 million so that we can get what we want on border security and guest worker programs," Labrador said Wednesday. "That really should be the tone of our negotiations."

Under the Senate plan, illegal immigrants would need to wait a decade for a green card, but then earn citizenship in another three years, the New York Times reported citing people familiar with the negotiations.

That plan is similar to the one pushed by the White House -- a rare point of bipartisan agreement in a volatile capital where partisan politics often trumps cooperation.

Reform advocates say such a time period is too long -- while conservative opponents rail against "amnesty" for illegal immigrants, reflecting the toxicity of much of the debate.

Senator Jeff Sessions and five other Republicans wrote Senator Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Judiciary committee, urging him not to rush through such complex and sweeping legislation without potentially years-long study on the effects of providing citizenship to millions of immigrants.

"This nation should not provide every benefit of citizenship to those who came here illegally that we give those who came legally," Sessions said.

Gang of Eight Democrat Senator Robert Menendez dismissed Sessions as "one voice" of opposition.

"There are a lot more voices who believe that a pathway is part of what comprehensive reform is about," Menendez told AFP.