In his first trip of his second term, President Obama on Tuesday unveiled his vision for immigration reform in a speech in Las Vegas, putting the weight of his administration behind passing legislation through Congress this year.  He made it clear that any legislation must contain a clear path to citizenship for most of the country’s 11 million illegal  immigrants.  He also told Hispanic members of Congress late last Friday at a White House meeting that immigration reform is his “top legislative priority.”  “Now is the time,” Obama said, “we can’t allow immigration reform to get bogged down in an endless debate.”

Under the president’s plan, illegal immigrants seeking citizenship would register, submit biometric data, pass background checks, and pay fees before gaining provisional legal status, according to a White House summary.  After taking those steps and learning English, those individuals would wait in line behind existing immigration backlogs are resolved before they can apply for permanent resident status, which they must hold, before they can apply for citizenship.

Meanwhile, a working group of bipartisan senators preempted the president’s speech by unveiling on Monday their own blueprint for a major overhaul of U.S. immigration laws, which includes a pathway to citizenship.  Republican Senators in the working group include Jeff Flake (AZ), Lindsey Graham (SC), John McCain (AZ), and Marco Rubio (FL).  Democrats involved are Senators Michael Bennet (CO), Richard Durbin (IL), Charles Schumer (NY), and Robert Menendez (NJ).

The White House had considered releasing its own legislation to overhaul the immigration system, but the president said it would not immediately do so.  Obama said the Senate framework unveiled this week is “very much in line with the principles I’ve proposed and campaigned on for the last few years.”  But, the president made clear he would not wait long.  “If Congress is unable to move forward in a timely fashion, I will send up a bill based on my proposal and insist they vote on it right away,” he said.

The Senate bipartisan “statement of principles” is meant to be a guide for drafting legislation that would be completed by the end of March.   As outlined, immigration reform would allow undocumented immigrants with clean criminal records to quickly achieve probationary legal residence after paying a fine and all back taxes owed.  These individuals could pursue full citizenship only after new measures are in place to prevent a future influx of illegal immigrations.  Those measures include increased border security, a new program to help employers verify the legal status of their employees, and increased stringency in checks to prevent immigrations from overstaying their visas.  Undocumented immigrants seeking citizenship would be required to go to the “end of the line” in order to obtain a green card, which allows for permanent legal residency before being awarded citizenship.

“Our goal, once we get our principles, is to sit down and negotiate a bill,” Senator Schumer said.  “We’ll have to work all that out.” Schumer did add that, “I’m impressed with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle over their desire to meet in the middle.”

This new proposal marks the most substantive bipartisan step Congress has taken toward new immigration laws since a comprehensive reform bill failed on the floor of the Senate in 2007.  The framework released this week is the result of intense behind-the-scenes talks between the senators, who have met five times since the November election.

It appears the end goal is to allow immigrants to emerge from the shadows without being deported while balancing concerns held by many opposed to “blanket amnesty” or the possibility of creating a process too lax that would just encourage more illegal immigration.

The group’s blueprint also gives special consideration for a separate pathway to full citizenship for young people who were brought to the country illegally as minors and agriculture workers whose labor has long been thought to be essential to the nation’s food supply.  The plan also expands available visas for highly-skilled workers and promises green cards for those who pursue graduate education in certain fields in the United States.

Although immigration reform advocates have long assumed that legislative action would probably begin in the Democratically-held Senate, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) said last week that members are working on the issue on a bipartisan basis in the House as well.  It is “time to deal” with immigration, he said.