Senate Democrats rolled out their framework for a comprehensive overhaul to immigration Thursday, saying the top priority is to secure the border. They also called for issuing biometric Social Security cards and carving a path for more than 10 million immigrants to become legal.
The senators had barely finished fighting back a GOP filibuster blocking their financial regulatory overhaul when five of their leaders rolled out yet another proposal to revamp the nation's laws.
With unemployment rampant and states' budgets in dire straits, it might not seem the best time to decide how to deal with illegal immigrants.
But Dick Durbin, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat, said Arizona's move last week taking immigration enforcement into its own hands left Congress no choice but to act.
"It's worth quoting what the Arizona association of the chiefs of police have said: 'We strongly urge the U.S. Congress to immediately initiate the necessary steps to begin the process of comprehensively addressing the immigration issue, to provide solutions that are fair, logical and equitable.' "
In their proposal, Democrats acknowledge widespread concern about violence along the U.S.-Mexico border and the need to get things under control.
"Our framework is fix the border first, but don't just fix the border," said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), who succeeded the late Ted Kennedy as chairman of the subcommittee dealing with immigration laws.
Schumer is now the leading advocate for a broad rewrite of those laws. The centerpiece of his proposal is to make sure all employees are in the U.S. legally -- and to do that, it calls for a biometric version of a familiar document.
"Our framework creates a fraud-proof, high-tech version of the Social Security card every one of us has," Schumer said. "New hires must show this card to their employers, who will swipe the cards through a machine to confirm their identity and immigration status."
Like Congress' last attempt at an immigration overhaul, this one draws a path to legal status for more than 10 million people in the country illegally.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) said undocumented workers would have to register with the government, pay back taxes, learn English and go to the back of the line for citizenship.
"What we have in mind is not amnesty," Feinstein said. "It's a tough and fair path forward for those who have contributed to American society."
But as with so many of their other initiatives, the Democrats have not convinced any Republicans to co-sponsor the measure.
"How can you reasonably answer people around the country who are saying fix the system, and then they won't let us fix the system?" asked Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "We're saying to our Republican colleagues, and I think you've noted the tone here today, we are inviting them to work with us."
New Hampshire's Judd Gregg is one of a half-dozen Republicans whom Democrats have been trying to win over.
"There's no point in bringing up any legislation," Gregg said, "until this administration starts acting responsibly on the border and does its job, which is to secure the border. That's the obligation of the president and the executive branch, and they aren't doing it."
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) had earlier co-sponsored Schumer's immigration measure but withdrew that support, alleging that Democrats are rushing the issue.
"I think immigration brought up for partisan political purposes is just bad for the issue. I'm not going to be part of that, I'm not playing that game," Graham said.
House Minority Leader John Boehner declared on Thursday that there is no chance that immigration will move through Congress.
"It's nothing more than a cynical ploy to try to engage voters, some segment of voters, to show up in this November's elections," Boehner said.
Many Republicans suspect Majority Leader Reid is mainly seeking to win over Latinos, which account for 1 in 4 of his constituents in Nevada, where he faces a tough re-election.
Reid says he's committed to bringing an immigration bill to the Senate floor, but in a nod to the tough odds it faces, he said it would be unwise to set an arbitrary deadline for doing so.