Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and fellow Democrats on Thursday unveiled a "framework" for a sweeping overhaul of U.S. immigration laws.
In wake of the furor over Arizona's crackdown on illegal immigrants, Democrats said the first step toward reform must be bolstered border security.
They also called for creation of a high-tech identification card for immigrant workers, a new process to admit temporary workers, "tough sanctions" against U.S. employers who hire illegal immigrants, and, eventually, a path toward U.S. citizenship for people in the country unlawfully.
With an estimated 10.8 million illegal immigrants in the United States, Reid said, "Democrats and Republicans can all agree that our immigration system is broken" and called for bipartisan cooperation to fix it.
Reid said the "framework" is based on months of negotiations that involved Sen. Charles Schumer, a member of the Democratic leadership.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham was also in those talks and last week said more work needed to be done before any such legislation is brought before Congress to consider.
Graham accused Reid, who is in tough re-election campaign, of prematurely pushing immigration reform in an effort to rally Hispanic voters in his home state of Nevada.
President Barack Obama called the Democrats' proposal "a very important step in the process of fixing our nation's broken immigration system."
"What has become increasingly clear is that we can no longer wait to fix our broken immigration system, which Democrats and Republicans alike agree doesn't work," he said in a statement. "It's unacceptable to have 11 million people in the United States who are living here illegally and outside of the system."
The next critical step, he said, is to iron out the details of a bill.
But the prospect of action this year on immigration legislation appears murky at best.
Just a day earlier, Obama cast doubt on the prospect of Congress tackling the issue in an election year. Obama noted that lawmakers may lack the "appetite" to take on immigration while many of them are up for re-election and while another big legislative issue — climate change — is already on their plate.
"I don't want us to do something just for the sake of politics that doesn't solve the problem," Obama told reporters Wednesday night aboard Air Force One.
At the Senate Democratic leadership's news conference Thursday, Reid was asked if he would try to force the bill to the floor without Republican support, a strategy he used successfully this week to advance the financial reform bill. Reid acknowledged the obvious: It takes 60 votes to move any controversial bill and Democrats only have 59 in their caucus. "Unless we get Republican help we're not going to have a bill on the floor," Reid said.
As the news conference ended, two key Republicans e-mailed reporters a response to the Democrats' entreaty.
"The Senate Democrats' proposal is nothing more than an attempt to score political points," said GOP Senators Lindsey Graham and Jon Kyl in a joint statement. "It poisons the well for those of us who are working toward a more secure border and responsible, bipartisan reform of our immigration laws."