US Senate to take up landmark immigration bill

The US Senate will soon begin debate on a long-awaited immigration bill that would provide a path to citizenship for millions in America illegally and is seen as "tough but fair" by its authors.

Several hearings and hours of contentious floor debate lie ahead, but the eight senators who put together the 844-page measure expressed confidence on Wednesday that this "starting point" legislation can pass through Congress.

"Our immigration system is broken and it is time for a national conversation about how to fix it," said the members of the so-called Gang of Eight, in a statement after the bill was filed with the Senate overnight.

"We believe common-sense immigration reform is vital in order to secure America's borders, advance our economic growth, and provide fuller access to the American dream."

The group -- four Democrats, including veteran Senator Chuck Schumer, and four Republicans, among them rising star Senator Marco Rubio -- came together in extensive closed-door negotiations to hammer out an ambitious bill that would bring about the most significant immigration reform in a quarter century.

"We look forward to multiple Senate hearings on this bill, an open committee process with amendments, and a full and fair debate in the Senate," they said.

The first committee hearing for the bill is scheduled for Friday.

The proposal would help bring out of the shadows around 11.5 million people 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.

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

But to convince hardline Republicans opposed to the idea of amnesty, the Senate negotiators 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 Republican president Ronald Reagan approved reforms that led to amnesty for 2.7 million people but, because of a lack of border resources, did little to stem the tide of illegal arrivals.

The Cuban-American Rubio, a potential 2016 presidential candidate seen as a key figure in the reform effort, issued a flurry of statements Wednesday seeking to knock back "myths" about the bill, including that illegal immigrants will get permanent residence regardless of improvements in border security.

"After 10 years, there are six security trigger steps that must be met before any currently illegal immigrant is given access to a green card" for permanent residency, Rubio said.

Those include a benchmark of halting 90 percent of the flow of people crossing the border illegally in high risk sectors.

"If any of these triggers are not achieved, no person currently here without documentation will be granted a green card," Rubio stressed.

The overall legislation has been given a thumbs up by President Barack Obama, who has declared immigration reform a key goal of his second term and said he was impressed with the legislation's comprehensive backing.

"If you take that package together, one that's supported by labor, that's supported by business, that's supported by advocacy groups, that's supported by evangelical Christian groups, you know, this is about as broad-based a coalition as you're going to get," he said on NBC's "Today" show.

United Auto Workers President Bob King said the bill would go far to "lift the fear of deportation" and allow immigrants to become productive contributors to the US economy.

"Comprehensive immigration reform supports the right of all workers to a voice on the job and a decent standard of living for their families," he said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid hailed the bill as a genuine compromise between the two parties and urged senators to address it in a "timely manner."

Several members in the House, where immigration negotiations are also taking place, expressed support for the deal as well, as did immigrant rights groups.