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January 28. 2013 11:51PM

Bipartisan group of U.S. senators details sweeping immigration plan

WASHINGTON - A bipartisan group of eight prominent senators Monday laid out an ambitious overhaul of the nation's patchwork immigration system that would balance tougher border enforcement with creating a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants and new opportunities for seasonal farmworkers to gain legal status.

The senators beat President Barack Obama to the punch, scrambling to unveil their plan a day before Obama was scheduled to outline his own proposal in Nevada, a Western state with a rising tide of Hispanic residents.

While only in his first term, the star of the senators' group was Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a charismatic Cuban-American who has tied his political fortunes and a potential 2016 White House run to his dramatic life story as the son of political refugees from Fidel Castro.

The high-powered group also included the second- and third-ranked Senate Democrats, Richard Durbin of Illinois and Charles Schumer of New York, along with 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain of Arizona and Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolinian with a reputation as a maverick willing to work across party lines on tough issues. Democratic Sens. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, also of Cuban descent, and Michael Bennet of Colorado joined the group, as did Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, just starting his first Senate term.

President George W. Bush, McCain, Graham and the late Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts led the last major push to pass an immigration overhaul, but it failed in June 2007 after a bitter fight that tied up the Senate for weeks.

But the 2012 presidential election results have altered the political landscape. Obama defeated Republican nominee Mitt Romney overwhelmingly among Hispanic voters, leaving Republicans wary of alienating the country's fastest-growing demographic group.

"The Republican Party is losing the support of our Hispanic citizens," McCain said Monday. "And we realize that there are many issues in which we think we are in agreement with our Hispanic citizens, but this (immigration reform) is a pre-eminent issue with those citizens."

The new bipartisan overhaul plan would allow the country's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants to obtain a green card only after fulfilling a number of requirements: registering with the government; passing a criminal background check; settling back taxes; and paying a fine for having entered the United States improperly.

If they met the first standards, undocumented immigrants would get in line behind green card applicants already pursuing legal residency. They would then have to learn English and U.S. civics, show a record of past and current employment, and pass another background check.

The plan has a significant new element that was not part of the 2007 initiative: undocumented farmworkers who "have been performing very important and difficult work to maintain America's food supply while earning subsistence wages" could earn a path to citizenship through a different and presumably more lenient visa process for agricultural workers.

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