A group of U.S. senators who will be influential in shaping and negotiating details of an immigration reform package is traveling to the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona to get a firsthand look at issues affecting the region.
Republican Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona were expected to tour the border Wednesday with Democratic Sens. Chuck Schumer of New York and Michael Bennet of Colorado. They are all members of the so-called Gang of Eight - a bipartisan group that has spent recent weeks trying to craft proposed immigration legislation.
The trip comes as Congress is in recess and as the lawmakers wrap up a bill designed to secure the border and put 11 million illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship. President Barack Obama has urged Congress to pass immigration reform this year, and border security is critical to McCain and other Republicans who contend that some areas along the border are far from secure.
"I wish every member of the United States Senate and Congress could see the border," McCain told reporters in Phoenix on Monday. "Only when you can see the expanse, the difficulties and the challenges of the border, can you really appreciate the need for our border security."
With top Republicans and Democrats focused on the issue, immigration reform faces its best odds in years. The proposed legislation will likely put illegal immigrants on a 13-year path to citizenship and would install new criteria for border security, allow more high- and low-skilled workers to come to the U.S. and hold businesses to tougher standards on verifying their workers are in the country legally.
McCain sought to lower expectations for the bill Monday during a town hall in Phoenix. He told immigration activists they wouldn't be completely happy with the measure and warned that the group must overcome difficult disagreements.
"We've made progress in a number of areas that I am encouraged by, but there are still areas that we are not in agreement," he said.
McCain said the lawmakers had reached an agreement on protections for young illegal immigrants brought to the country as children and on visas for workers, but declined to provide specifics.
Reports indicate that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, negotiating through the Gang of Eight senators, had reached significant agreement Friday on a new visa program to bring up to 200,000 lower-skilled workers a year to the country. The groups did not reach consensus on how much the workers would be paid.
The bill is expected to be lengthy and cover numerous issues, including limiting family-based immigration to put a greater emphasis on skills and employment ties instead.
The legislation was initially promised in March, but the lawmakers have since said they won't be done until at least April. Immigration proponents have said the group needs to introduce legislation soon, while some Republican lawmakers complain the process has moved too quickly.
If passed, the legislation could usher in the most sweeping changes in immigration law in nearly 30 years.