WASHINGTON/PHOENIX (Reuters) - Senate Democratic leaders unveiled on Thursday an outline for overhauling the country’s “broken” immigration system as protests mounted against Arizona’s crackdown on illegal immigrants.
With an estimated 10.8 million people in the United States illegally, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and fellow Democrats said the first step toward reform must be bolstered U.S. border security.
Also on Thursday, the first legal and political challenges to Arizona’s controversial new law were filed in the state, and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa endorsed an economic boycott of Arizona by the second-largest U.S. city.
Jose Reyes Baeza, the governor of the Mexican state of Chihuahua, said he would not attend a summit of U.S. and Mexican border leaders set for September in Phoenix and urged other Mexican leaders not to go to the forum.
The Democrats also called for creation of a high-tech identification card for immigrant workers, a process to admit temporary workers, “tough sanctions” against U.S. employers who hire illegal immigrants, and, eventually, a path toward U.S. citizenship for people in the country unlawfully.
The Democratic proposal would “require those here illegally to register with the government, pay taxes, learn English, pass criminal background checks and go to the back of the line to earn legal status,” Reid said.
Critics and backers of Arizona’s immigration law attribute the state’s action to Washington’s failure to stem the flow of illegal immigrants to the United States.
The measure, signed into law on April 23, makes it a state crime to be in Arizona illegally. It requires state and local police to determine a person’s immigration status if there is “reasonable suspicion” they are in the United States illegally.
Republican backers say the law is needed to curb crime in the desert state, which is home to some 460,000 illegal immigrants and a major corridor for drug and migrant smugglers from Mexico.
Critics say the law opens the door to racial profiling. Although polls show broad support for Arizona’s law both in the state and nationally, it has sparked an outcry among Latinos, civil rights activists and organized labor before planned May Day rallies this weekend.
President Barack Obama welcomed the Senate Democratic plan and said, “What has become increasingly clear is that we can no longer wait to fix our broken immigration system.”
He said he would work with both Democrats and Republicans on a plan for reform.
Obama’s administration said it was considering a court challenge, and Obama has called the law “misguided.”
But Obama said on Wednesday that Congress, having dealt with a crush of volatile issues this year, may not have “the appetite now” to tackle immigration reform.
Reid and fellow members of the Senate Democratic leadership made it clear they were ready to try.
Reid acknowledged he would need at least some Republican support to clear any Senate procedural roadblocks.
“Democrats and Republicans can all agree that our immigration system is broken,” Reid said, adding bipartisan cooperation was needed to fix it.
Immigration reform, one of the most incendiary issues in U.S. politics, is seen as unlikely to pass in this election year.
Rice University political science professor Mark Jones called the Democrats’ drive “unfeasible,” noting they had only a limited window before the November congressional elections to pass legislation and had “no Republicans on board.”
“What they really want to do is signal to the Latino community that they are strongly behind getting immigration reform passed ... (as) they need to maintain Latino turnout,” Jones said.
The Democratic “framework” is based largely on an outline drafted earlier by Democratic Senator Charles Schumer and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. But Graham has complained that Congress is not yet ready to move on it.
Republican Senator Orrin Hatch said the Democratic effort should focus more on border security.
In Arizona, a group of activists filed a petition with the secretary of state seeking a measure on the November ballot that would put the law before voters. The group, One Arizona, has until late July or early August to submit the more than 76,000 signatures needed to get the initiative on the ballot.
The first two lawsuits challenging the law were filed in federal courts in Arizona — one by a Tucson police officer and the other by the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders.
Despite the outcry, a Rasmussen Reports poll on Wednesday found nearly two-thirds — 64 percent — of Arizona voters favored the statute. A telephone survey this week showed 60 percent of voters nationwide backed such a law.
Los Angeles’ comptroller has identified $7.2 million in potential business ties or contracts that might be severed in a boycott of Arizona.
“The Arizona law is not only misguided, it is unpatriotic and unconstitutional,” said Villaraigosa, vice president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and one of the highest-profile U.S. Latino politicians.
Additional reporting by David Schwartz in Phoenix, Steve Gorman in Los Angeles, Caren Bohan and Richard Cowan in Washington, Andrew Stern in Chicago and Robert Campbell in Mexico City; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Mohammad Zargham and Peter Cooney