WASHINGTON -- A sweeping plan to overhaul the nation's immigration system and award citizenship to 11 million immigrants in the country illegally is sure to pass Congress with bipartisan support, Sen. Michael Bennet predicted Wednesday.
The Colorado Democrat is part of the "Gang of Eight" in the Senate -- four Democrats and four Republicans -- working on the immigration bill, which has President Barack Obama's backing.
The plan was unveiled Monday, when Bennet was flying back to Washington, and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said the group hopes to introduce legislation in March.
Obama endorsed the proposal in general Tuesday and urged Congress to quickly approve it.
Bennet warned that the road ahead is rocky.
"There are many miles to go before we get this done," Bennet said in an interview at his Capitol Hill office Wednesday. "But I have a feeling that . . . we're going to have a big bipartisan vote for this in the end. My sense is that people are more optimistic than they've been in 20 years about addressing this problem."
Analysts say the 2012 elections gave immigration reform fresh momentum. Obama handily won the Hispanic and Asian-American vote, and Republicans are trying to expand support among minorities for future electoral battles. Tea party Republicans overwhelmingly reject allowing illegal immigrants to become citizens, calling it amnesty.
In addition to Bennet and Schumer, the Gang of Eight includes Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, and Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Marco Rubio of Florida, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona. Bennet said Schumer and McCain are the key architects of the plan.
Bennet, who is heading the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, is part of the Senate leadership. The DSCC recruits Democrats for Senate openings and helps defend incumbents. Schumer and Menendez were previous DSCC leaders.
The Senate proposal contains some of the same provisions as the Colorado Compact, an immigration plan that Bennet and former U.S. Sen. Hank Brown, R-Colo., unveiled in December. Bennet said he discussed the Colorado plan with Schumer.
Two similarities: An accelerated legalization process for agricultural workers in the country without legal permission and a provision to award permanent residency -- or "green" -- cards to foreign students who earn graduate degrees in engineering and the sciences. Not surprisingly, those are the components of the Senate plan Bennet supports the most.
The farm worker provision is particularly important to the livestock industry in Northern Colorado, which has "suffered as a result of this broken immigration system, lack of predictability in the workforce, spotty enforcement (and) confusing regulations," Bennet said. "It's something that I've heard about from the West Slope to the eastern plains over and over again for the last four years."
The former Denver school superintendent said he has also long favored granting citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants who were raised in the U.S. since a young age. After failing to get a legalization bill -- the so-called DREAM Act -- Through Congress, Obama last summer issued an executive order blocking the deportation of DREAM Act beneficiaries.
Offering citizenship to people in the country illegally is the biggest political obstacle that could slow or kill the deal in Congress.
GOP Sens. Jeff Sessions of Alabama and David Vitter of Louisiana signaled their opposition soon after the proposal was announced.
Vitter said on the Senate floor that illegal immigrants exploit the nation's lax border security while legal immigrants find the system more and more cumbersome.
The key test for any reform bill, he said, is whether it would end illegal immigration or "will it perpetuate the problem or, God forbid, even grow the problem dramatically?"
A small number of outside groups like NumbersUSA are also pressuring Congress to reject the deal.
Rosemary Jenks, director of government affairs for NumbersUSA, accused the senators of trying to "out-amnesty Obama," and said their plan merely reworks the proposals that were defeated six years ago.
It offers "meaningless enforcement measures, mass amnesty, and increases in legal immigration, with taxpayers left to foot the bill," she said.
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