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Next order of business in Washington: Immigration reform

Forging ahead with what President Obama has granted top billing on his second-term agenda, lawmakers this week will introduce a plan for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for those living in the country illegally, and which both Republicans and Democrats say could become law this year.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who unsuccessfully tried to spearhead similar legislation before his 2008 White House bid, is part of a six-member bipartisan Senate team that for weeks has been working on a passable bill. Appearing on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday, he said evolving politics make him hopeful for better success this time around.

"What's changed is, honestly, is that there is a new, I think, appreciation on both sides of the aisle, including, maybe more importantly, on the Republican side of the aisle, that we have to enact a comprehensive immigration reform bill," McCain said.

"We can't go on forever with 11 million people living in this country in the shadows in illegal status," he continued. "We cannot forever have children who were born here, who were brought here by their parents when they were small children, live in the shadows as well. I think the time is right."

Another member of the Senate group, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., agreed on "This Week" that Republicans and Democrats alike are growing increasingly amenable to a pathway to "earned legalization." He said he expects the package to also include tightened border security and a crackdown on hiring undocumented employees.

"I see things that were once off the table for agreement and discussion being on the table with a serious pathway forward," he said.

But while Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said on "Fox News Sunday" the group is "committed to a comprehensive approach to finally, in this country, have an immigration law we can live with," he added there remain "some very difficult issues" to work through.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a group member whose parents were Cuban immigrants, wrote in an op-ed Sunday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal that before the government creates an avenue to citizenship for illegal immigrants, it must first find a way to improve its enforcement of immigration laws. "We... can't fix our broken immigration system if we provide incentives for people to come here illegally - precisely the signal a blanket amnesty would send," he wrote.

"I've been encouraged by the support for these ideas I've found across the political spectrum, and my hope is President Obama will use his voice and influence to further this approach," Rubio continued. "However, if what he offers is a process for the undocumented that is more lenient, faster and unfair to those waiting to come legally, it won't bode well for reform."

The president is expected to kick off his push for reform Tuesday during a speech in Las Vegas. His proposed changes include a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants that includes fines and back tax enforcement, strengthened border security, and strict penalties for employers who hire undocumented workers. Alterations to the legal immigration system are also on the table, such as issuing green cards to highly-skilled workers, and streamlining legal immigration for immediate family members of U.S. citizens.

One of the biggest criticisms Mr. Obama heard during his first term from his 2008 supporters was about the lack of movement on his immigration promises, including the DREAM Act, which would increase border security while also providing a pathway to citizenship for young immigrants. He was panned by both parties for using the issue as a political gimmick when he passed an executive order six months before the election, issuing a moratorium on the deportation of children of illegal immigrants.

In September, while campaigning for reelection, the president was criticized during a Univision forum for breaking a promise to tackle immigration reform during his first year as president. "A promise is a promise," said Univision's Jorge Ramos, "and with all due respect, you didn't keep that promise." But Mr. Obama still managed to carry more than 70 percent of the Latino vote in November. Asians, too, who outnumbered Hispanics in 2010 immigration numbers, overwhelmingly supported the president.

McCain cited the election results as a reason Republicans should be climbing aboard with immigration reform. "Look at the last election," he said. "We are losing dramatically the Hispanic vote, which we think should be ours for a variety of reasons, and we've got to understand that."

And with the windows between campaign seasons growing increasingly smaller, Durbin agreed it's time to act.

"We have virtually been going maybe 25 years without a clear statement about immigration policy," he said. "That's unacceptable in this nation of immigrants."

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