Washington • Sen. Mike Lee has left a bipartisan working group on immigration, unable to support a plan that calls for increased border security and better tracking of temporary visas in exchange for an eventual pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
The other eight senators, led by Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and John McCain, R-Ariz., released their recommendations Monday, the day before President Barack Obama is expected to outline his vision for immigration reform in a speech in Las Vegas.
The senators promise to have their bill ready to go in March and predicted broad bipartisan support for its passage, but McCain noted the issue remains controversial.
"We are not going to get everybody on board," he said.
They couldn't get Lee, who joined the talks in early December at Schumer's invitation but balked at the recommendations when they circulated among the senators last weekend.
He was the only member of the group who didn't sign on to the document, though it didn't come as a big surprise, since he was also the only participant who never has supported a pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants.
"These guidelines contemplate a policy that will grant special benefits to illegal immigrants based on their unlawful presence in the country," Lee said in a statement. "Reforms to our complex and dysfunctional immigration system should not in any way favor those who came here illegally over the millions of applicants who seek to come here lawfully."
The bipartisan plan would require illegal immigrants to immediately register with the federal government in exchange for a "pending status" that allows them to work legally. They would undergo a criminal background check and an analysis to see if they owe any back taxes. They would be eligible to get legal status but only after the border-enforcement measures are in place and they wait behind people who applied to immigrate through the current legal channels.
The group does plan to create a more streamlined process for immigrants who get a doctorate or master's degree in a science or math field, agricultural workers and so called "Dreamers," children who were brought here illegally by their parents and who have attended college or joined the military.
Lee has opposed the Dream Act, a separate piece of legislation that would offer legal status to those children of undocumented workers, and he said Monday that he also disliked providing preferential treatment for agriculture workers.
"Maintaining the safety of America's food supply is an important goal, but it is unclear why immigrants in this sector should achieve special status over skilled workers in industries equally important to the American economy," he said.
The guidelines mark the beginning of the first major congressional debate on immigration since President George W. Bush's reform attempt fizzled in 2007. Obama touted immigration as a top priority before his reelection in November and shortly afterward Republican leaders signaled they were willing to go along, in part because of how overwhelmingly Hispanic voters supported Democrats on Election Day.
"The Republican Party is losing the support of our Hispanic citizens," said McCain, a major participant in the 2007 effort.
Many conservatives have turned to Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a Cuban-American and potential 2016 presidential candidate. Rubio had been working on his own immigration proposals before joining the group and becoming its eighth signatory, a spot that Lee was originally expected to fill.
Lee said the group found common ground on border security, new visa enforcement measures and an employment verification system and he left "encouraged by the opportunities presented by the Group of Eight" though he now plans to go his own way. The senator will draft piecemeal immigration bills that will likely be similar to some of the bipartisan group's recommendations, particularly on border security.
The group wants to use drones and more federal agents along the southern border, while creating a commission made up of the governors and local officials from southwestern states that would signal when the beefed-up security was in place and working.
The marquee issue is what to do with undocumented immigrants and Lee said he can't support anything that is "amnesty," but the senators who did sign the document say they have created a "tough but fair" path forward.
"We can not continue as a nation," McCain said, "with 11 million people residing in the shadows."
Immigration reform highlights
Four Democratic senators and four Republican senators created these guidelines for an immigration overhaul they hope to introduce in March:
Citizenship • Allow illegal immigrants to gain probationary legal status immediately and create a lengthy path to citizenship contingent on increased border security and an improved program to track when legal immigrants leave the country when required.
Fast tracked • Children of undocumented immigrants, agricultural workers and those who earn doctorates or master's degrees would get Green Cards easier than other immigrants.
Border security • Use drones, hire more border agents and create a new visa tracking system for land, air and sea travel.
Employment verification • Boost fines for employers who hire illegal workers and develop a more effective electronic system to verify the immigration status of applicants.