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Arizona’s senators join push for immigration reform framework

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WASHINGTON – Arizona’s two senators joined six others Monday to unveil a bipartisan “tough, but fair” plan for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for some people now here illegally.

The proposal also calls for strengthening the border, improving the legal immigration system, creating a stronger employment verification system and making it easier for certain workers to get jobs here.

“We cannot continue as a nation with 11 million people living in the shadows,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., one of the eight backers of the plan, four Republicans and four Democrats.

“We have been too content for too long to allow individuals to mow our lawns, serve our food, clean our homes, even watch our children, while not affording them any of the benefits that makes our country so great,” McCain said.

At a news conference on Capitol Hill Monday, five of the eight laid out the plan, which they said will become the basis for legislation. They hope to have a bill passed this year.

The senators said that the most controversial aspect of the plan is its call for a path to citizenship. It would let immigrants who are already here apply for citizenship, but only after passing a background check, paying back taxes and a penalty, learning English and demonstrating current and past employment in the United States, among other requirements.

While the details of a bill still need to be worked out, the senators said they felt they had a better chance of getting comprehensive reform passed this year because the political climate has shifted.

“While there are still many details to be worked out, I recognize that in order to address the many facets of immigration reform, it’s going to take a bipartisan commitment,” Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said in a prepared statement.

“‘The devil’s in the details,’ and not everyone is going to like everything, but sitting idly by is not a responsible approach,” Flake said.

Flake was right on one thing: Not everyone liked everything in the proposal in initial reactions Monday.

Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, was unimpressed by the proposed path to citizenship for illegal immigrants currently in the country.

“There are a few hoops that people are going to have to jump through, but in the end they get to stay, they get to work and they eventually get citizenship,” Mehlman said. “It’s still a reward for having broken the law, they are still far better off than people who have played by the rules.”

He said that reform is not just about protecting the border, but also trying to convince people to not come across in the first place.

Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Phoenix, said he was happy that the framework addresses the legalization for immigrants currently in the country, but disappointed that it links that path to stronger border defense. Pastor said that while both issues need to be dealt with, they are separate issues and any reform needs to deal first with the people who are here now.

But Clarissa Martinez, director of immigration and civic engagement for National Council of La Raza, said a bill needs to look at both immigrants in the country and border security, because the two are so tightly intertwined.

“When one of those pieces is broken, it affects the other,” she said.

Thomas Saenz, president and general council for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, called the plan a good starting point for legislation. He called 2013 a “singularly important year” to get legislation passed, but echoed the senators’ statements that the details are what count.

The five lawmakers at Monday’s news conference – McCain and Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla, and Democratic Sens. Charles Schumer of New York, Dick Durbin of Illinois and Robert Menendez of New Jersey – said they had discussed their plan with President Barack Obama, who was scheduled to announce his own plan Tuesday in Las Vegas.

Senators not at Monday’s event were Flake, Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., and Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo.

The five senators said Monday that Obama supports their proposal and White House spokesman Jay Carney agreed in an afternoon news briefing, but would not discuss the administration’s position on specific parts of the plan.

Several times Monday, Rubio and Menendez gave their answers in Spanish for the Latino reporters and broadcasts in the room.

McCain followed suit. After answering a question about the need to get a bill done this year, he issued a one-word call for action: “Vamanos.”