US senators unveil immigration reform, Obama supportive

A bipartisan group of US lawmakers laid out an immigration reform proposal Tuesday that would provide a path to citizenship for millions of people who are in America illegally.

The most ambitious immigration reform in a quarter century has been a key focus of President Barack Obama's second term, while Republicans smarting from last year's election defeat have sought to broaden their outreach to minorities, particularly the large Hispanic community.

"This bill is clearly a compromise, and no one will get everything they wanted, including me," Obama said in a statement after he was briefed by Senate Republican John McCain and Democrat Chuck Schumer.

But the president stressed that the sweeping, "common sense" measure would have broad support from the public and he urged swift passage.

"I stand willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that comprehensive immigration reform becomes a reality as soon as possible."

The new bipartisan proposal would help bring out of the shadows around 11.5 million people -- a majority of whom are Mexican -- who live and work in the United States without legal documentation.

They would get a legal temporary status and could work, travel and drive without fear of deportation.

But to convince hardline Republicans opposed to the idea of amnesty for those they consider criminals, the Senate negotiators -- four Democrats and four Republicans -- included ambitious measures to tighten security along the 1,800-mile (3,000-kilometer) border with Mexico.

They want to avoid a repeat of 1986, when president Ronald Reagan approved immigration reforms that led to amnesty for 2.7 million people but, thanks to a lack of resources at the border, did little to stem the tide of immigrants entering illegally.

This time, lawmakers want to set a benchmark of halting 90 percent of the flow of people crossing the border illegally in "high risk sectors."

A $4.5 billion budget would be dedicated to building "double-layer fencing" in some spots and for new surveillance technology, including unmanned drones.

Employers would be required to verify, using a new federal database, the legal status of all their workers.

And to be eligible for amnesty, potential immigrants would need to have arrived, and lived continuously, in the US since December 31, 2011; to pay a fine of at least $500 and any past due taxes; and to have a clean criminal record, with a maximum of two misdemeanor convictions.

Ali Noorani, head of the National Immigration Forum, said the "tough but fair" legislation was headed in the right direction.

"The status quo is a complete failure, so this compromise is a very, very good step forward," he told AFP.

Schumer said he was aiming to file the bill late Tuesday, with an eventual vote on the Senate floor as early as late May.

"We will have hearings, we will have amendments, we will have floor debates," McCain said after he and Schumer met with Obama.

"I am confident at the end of the day we will have a bill on the president's desk."

After 10 years, the immigrants could file for a green card, or permanent residency. Three years after that, they could request citizenship.

Those who crossed the border as children could get residency after just five years.

The other major component aims to address the shortage of skilled workers in certain professions -- especially high-tech industries.

The number of "H-1B" visas, for instance, would rise from 65,000 to 110,000 a year, and could go as high as 180,000 if the demand continues to grow.

There would be no limits to the number of green cards issued to high-level researchers or professors or to those with extraordinary ability in science, art, education, business or athletics.

The lawmakers also aim to create a new three-year "W" visa, for unskilled workers in sectors like construction that are experiencing shortages.

But the famed annual diversity lottery, which offers 55,000 green cards a year, would go away, falling victim to Republican opposition which prefers to give priority to highly-skilled immigrants.

The reform roll-out got the thumbs-down from at least one senator, Republican Jeff Sessions.

"There is virtually no dispute in my opinion that the bill as proposed will pull down the wages of lower-wage workers in America" and increase unemployment, Sessions said.

"Do we have a shortage of labor in America?" he asked. "The answer is no."