WASHINGTON – Moments before a group of eight senators announced its bipartisan plan to overhaul immigration law, a smaller group launched the Republican opposition.
Led by Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the Republican push-back emerged as a muted affair. Only one other senator joined the event.
That is a stark contrast to the heated Republican rhetoric in 2007 after the last attempt to reach a deal on a comprehensive immigration bill, before the party’s leaders made a strategic decision after the November election to embrace an issue that is a priority among the growing Latino electorate.
The proposal presented Thursday would gird the Southern border with a double-layer fence and aerial drones, and create a guest-worker program for farm laborers, gardeners, housekeepers and others with similar low-skill jobs. Employers would be required to verify the legal status of all workers.
In return, there would be a 13-year path to legal status, including citizenship, for 11 million people who entered the United States illegally or overstayed visas. They would have to pay fees, taxes and a $2,000 fine.
Appearing with the eight senators – four from each party – was an unlikely alliance: a Chamber of Commerce executive, immigration advocates, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist and religious leaders allied with the Republican Party and the left.
“This is why we know we will succeed,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a leader of the bipartisan efforts.
Republican leaders, sobered by Latino voters’ stinging rebuke in November, have come around to immigration reform because they know the party must reach beyond its base of mostly white voters, many in the party’s Southern stronghold.
Sessions and Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said the immigration proposal is nothing short of an immediate amnesty for those who have broken the law.
“Like in 2007, the special interests were brought in – they’ve been engaged behind closed doors to help write the bill,” Sessions said. “Like 2007, this bill is amnesty before enforcement.”
The bill faces its first committee hearing today.