US Senate group close to deal on immigration plan

WASHINGTON (AP) - A bipartisan group of influential US senators is nearing agreement on a comprehensive immigration bill that would put the country's 11 million illegal immigrants on a 13-year path to citizenship, officials with outside groups keeping up with the talks said.

Their plan represents the most sweeping changes in immigration law in decades.

The famously snarled immigration system turned into a top political issue after Hispanics voted strongly last year to help give President Barack Obama a second term. Opposition Republicans have been struggling ever since to find ways to shift from a white, aging, conservative image that continues to slip away from mainstream demographics.

With both top political parties focused on the issue, immigration overhaul faces its best prospects in years.

The bipartisan group's legislation would install new criteria for border security, allow more high- and low-skilled workers to come to the US and hold businesses to tougher standards on verifying their workers are in the country legally, according to outside groups and lawmakers involved.

The senators in the so-called Gang of Eight hoped to resolve most issues before Congress begins a two-week recess at week's end. That would allow them to meet a self-imposed deadline to present their legislation next month.

"About 90 per cent of the issues, including the path to citizenship, are settled," Senator Chuck Schumer, a Democrat, told Hispanic media on Thursday, according to his office.

Protesters converged on Thursday on Mr Schumer's office to accuse him of breaking his initial promise to have the bill done in March. Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, whose panel would take up the legislation, complained this week that the group was taking too long. As a result, Mr Leahy said, his committee won't be able to complete writing the bill itself in April, as he had hoped.

Mr Schumer and others said consensus had formed on details of a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country.

The new bill would contemplate a 10-year wait for illegal immigrants already in the US before they could get a green card allowing them permanent residency, senators have said. During that time, they would be in a provisional legal status and would not have to return to their home countries, as current law requires.

Once they get the green card, they would have to wait three years to be able to apply for citizenship, compared to the five-year wait that most green-card holders currently have to abide, outside officials say they've been told. The new three-year wait was first reported by The New York Times.

That adds up to 13 years, which would put the Senate bill in line with immigration legislation drafted by President Barack Obama, which he has said he would offer only if the Gang of Eight process stalls.

There's also said to be substantial consensus among the senators on border security issues. The bill would require that the border be secured before illegal immigrants could embark on the path to citizenship. The border security piece was critical to support from Republicans.