NOGALES, Ariz (Reuters) - Members of a bipartisan group of eight Senators took their quest for a deal on immigration reform to the Arizona-Mexico border on Wednesday where they said they were on track to deliver a bill when Congress resumes next month.
The senators - New York Democrat Charles Schumer, Arizona Republicans John McCain and Jeff Flake and Colorado Democrat Michael Bennet - toured a stretch of the Arizona-Mexico border where many foreigners have entered the United States illegally.
The senators are trying to create metrics for defining whether the border is secure as part of a comprehensive immigration bill that would give millions of illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.
Speaking at a news conference after meeting with border patrol agents and flying over the international border around the frontier city of Nogales, Schumer said he was hopeful they would present a bill when Congress resumes April 8.
“The bottom line is we are very close. I’d say we are 90 percent there. We have a few little problems to work on ... but we’re very hopeful that we will meet our deadline,” said Schumer, who was speaking at a building that was within sight of the steel border fence.
“We hope to have a bill agreed to and done .. the day we come back,” he said.
The senators are members of the so-called Gang of Eight - four Democrats and four Republicans - who are working on a plan for the biggest overhaul of immigration laws since 1986.
Flake and McCain have tried to impress on their colleagues the difficulties in their home state of Arizona, which is part of the most heavily trafficked section of the nearly 2,000 mile southwest border with Mexico.
“In the last several years we have made improvements on the border. The border is still not in many areas as secure as we want it to be or expect it to be,” McCain told reporters at the same news conference.
Asked if it would take billions of dollars and decades to secure the border, McCain said, “We are talking about a lot of money, but we also have to make sure that the money is well spent.”
Although the group of senators has agreed to create a way for the 11 million undocumented foreigners in the country to earn citizenship, problems with the future flow of immigrants has remained a sticking point.
A new temporary worker program is critical for Republicans, who will not agree to overhaul the immigration system unless there is a process for foreigners to fill U.S. jobs temporarily if needed.
The issue of wages for the new workers briefly stalled talks on Friday in Washington with unions and businesses publicly hurling insults at each other.
At the time, the AFL-CIO, the biggest labor federation, said Republicans and businesses wanted to undercut wages. The Chamber of Commerce, the biggest U.S. business lobby, said the unions had jeopardized the entire immigration reform effort.
Tempers cooled earlier this week with both sides cautiously voicing some optimism.
Obama acknowledged on Wednesday that the future flow of guest workers was a sticking point between labor and business, but he said the conflicts could be resolved.
“I don’t agree that it’s threatening to doom the legislation,” Obama said in an interview with Telemundo, according to a transcript. “This is a resolvable issue.”
Obama also said he did not think it would be necessary for him to step in, given the progress that lawmakers were making.
“If we have a bill introduced at the beginning of next month as these senators indicate it will be, then I‘m confident that we can get it done certainly before the end of the summer,” he said.
Sources said organized labor and the business community met on Tuesday to try to resolve their differences over a new program that would determine the future of immigration for low-skilled foreign workers such as janitors and cooks.
At the news conference, Schumer declined to provide details on the disagreement or what the group still had to resolve. A small group of Democrat and Republican lawmakers in the House of Representatives is also working on an immigration bill that would provide a path to citizenship.
In May Obama will travel to Mexico, which is watching the U.S. process of immigration reform closely. He will also travel to Costa Rica.
Additional reporting by Rachelle Younglai and Jeff Mason in Washington; Editing by Andrew Hay, Bob Burgdorfer and Cynthia Osterman