With protesters taking to the streets, and Americans looking to Washington for a solution, never before has immigration reform been tackled this way: Politicians at opposite ends of the debate collaborating in secret to devise a new comprehensive plan.
According to CBS News correspondent Sharyl Attkisson, the group, which includes Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, has met for hours several times a week since March — with Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff acting as point man for the White House.
How unusual is it for Democrats, Republicans and White House Cabinet officials to be writing a bill together at the start? Sen. Graham said, "I've never done this before. I've been in the Congress now for over 12 years."
CBS News has been told the plan that could be announced next week attempts to please hardliners by spending billions to secure the border first. But all 12 million-plus illegal immigrants could stay. They'd have to register and pay fines for having entered illegally.
To become citizens, they'd go to the end of the line behind those who've already applied.
Under a new merit plan, points would be given for work skills and language: The more points, the faster they can become citizens.
And everyone — even U.S. citizens — would have to prove who they are when applying for a job.
The bottom line: An illegal immigrant here today could remain in the U.S., but would have to wait at least 13 years to become a citizen.
Negotiators agree some critics who call for mass jailings or deportations of illegals will call this compromise amnesty and oppose it, but with the House indicating it will follow the Senate's lead, it's still the last best hope for immigration reform any time soon.
"If we fail, if we cannot get this bill done, then this is it for years to come," Graham said.
That's because once this window of opportunity closes, all sides have said it'll be too close to presidential elections to tackle a subject that's such a lightning rod.
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