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April 17. 2013 9:57PM

Immigration plan critics call its citizenship path an unfair 'amnesty'

WASHINGTON - A Senate plan to rewrite U.S. immigration law has stoked a years-old debate over allowing undocumented residents a chance to become citizens, a measure viewed by opponents as rewarding lawbreakers with "amnesty" and undercutting American workers.

Though Republican opposition to creating a citizenship path for the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants has waned since the November election, the issue divides the party. Some lawmakers and interest groups immediately criticized the bipartisan Senate plan released yesterday, centering on their opposition to amnesty for those in the country illegally.

"There will be 11 million, maybe more, given immediate amnesty" and placed "on a guaranteed path to citizenship," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., the chief opponent of the Senate proposal. "The amount of immigration is going to be far more than most Americans think."

The Senate proposal from a group of four Democrats and four Republicans would allow undocumented immigrants who pay at least $2,000 in fines and meet other criteria to apply for citizenship after more than a decade in the U.S., though only if specific border security benchmarks are met. The four Republican members insisted that border security must be improved before any undocumented could become citizens.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, one of the Republicans in the group, on Tuesday told reporters that tightened border security is "vital" and would help attract Republican support.

Another Republican member, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, is among those in his party trying to pitch a citizenship path to reticent Republicans. As part of that effort, Rubio has been seeking to differentiate his group's plan from a 1986 law that made 3 million undocumented workers eligible for legal status.

The proposal will address the "11 million undocumented people living under de facto amnesty" right now, Rubio said today in a statement after the bill's text was made publicly available early Wednesday.

He added that the plan would deal with the undocumented population "in a tough but humane way that is fair to those trying to come here the right way and linked to achieving several security triggers."

Rubio's stance on the immigration issue embodies an attempt by party leaders since November to reconnect with Hispanic voters; 71 percent voted for President Barack Obama's re-election. Almost two-thirds of Americans, 64 percent, support a citizenship path for the undocumented, according to a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted April 5-8.

Still, the party remains split over the issue.

Texas Sen. John Cornyn, the chamber's second-ranking Republican, said he was skeptical of the citizenship path proposal because it hinged on "promises that may or may not be possible to keep" of improved U.S. border security.

"We need to be realistic in terms of what this present Congress could bind future Congresses to in terms of goals five years and 10 years down the road," Cornyn said Tuesday in an interview.

Sessions predicted that the citizenship path wasn't "going to become law as written," adding that he hadn't decided whether to try to alter the bill or oppose it.

The comments signify that mustering the 60 votes needed to pass the plan in the Senate will be difficult.

An immigration-law rewrite faces longer odds in the Republican-run House, where a separate bipartisan group is drafting a proposal which could be released later this month.

Since the last major immigration revision was approved in 1986, lawmakers have unsuccessfully tried several times to revamp U.S. immigration policy, most recently in 2007.

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