US senators closing in on immigration deal
A bipartisan group of US lawmakers was on the cusp Wednesday of unveiling the most sweeping immigration reform in a quarter century, with a Senate bill expected to be introduced within days.
Several of the senators in the so-called Gang of Eight who are thrashing out the complicated deal have said it would contain a long-term path to citizenship for most of the country's 11 million illegal immigrants.
The bill is also expected to include an expansion of quotas of foreign workers and tighter border security.
Immigration reform has been a key focus of President Barack Obama's second term, while Republicans smarting from their 2012 election defeat have sought to broaden their outreach to minorities, particularly the Hispanic community.
The four Democrats and four Republicans who have held negotiations since February could introduce their measure as early as Thursday or in the coming week, sources told AFP.
"We are optimistic that we will be able to introduce legislation soon," a Senate aide said.
On Wednesday, the group's Republicans were expected to brief their party colleagues in the Senate on the parameters of the agreement, if not some of the specific legislative language.
And in another sign that a deal was imminent, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy scheduled a hearing on the bill for April 17, heaping pressure on the negotiators to finalize the legislation.
A Senate aide said Leahy has promised to have unlimited debate and amendments during committee consideration of the measure.
Alex Burgos, a spokesman for Senator Marco Rubio, said the Senate Republican Policy Committee has also agreed to host a public hearing after the legislation is introduced.
"We believe that the more public scrutiny this legislation receives, the better it will become," he said.
Rubio -- a Cuban-American and potential 2016 presidential candidate who has emerged as a key voice in the immigration reform effort -- has joined other Republicans in demanding a comprehensive internal debate on any legislation.
Another bipartisan immigration bill is meanwhile being crafted in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, amid public sentiment that appears increasingly in favor of a comprehensive solution.
According to a March 21 survey, six out of 10 Americans are in favor of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
The last major immigration reform dates back to 1986 when, with Republican icon Ronald Reagan in the White House, some 3.5 million illegal immigrants were granted amnesty.
Employers and unions are carrying out parallel negotiations to expand and overhaul entry quotas for workers in all sectors while lawmakers and the government debate border security.
The United States deports about 400,000 undocumented immigrants annually.
Thousands of people marched to the west front of the US Capitol Wednesday for a large rally organized by Hispanic and pro-immigration reform groups.
"There is immigration reform that's going to be passed, but the devil's in the detail," said Maria Castro, 19, an Arizona State University student and US-born citizen whose mother, an undocumented worker, overstayed her visa.
Castro said agro-business and immigrants in high-tech sectors stand to gain from the deal, but she remains skeptical that many others will get a pathway to citizenship.