GWEN IFILL: For the first time in years, there was serious talk today of getting Congress to act on immigration. Senators from both sides of the aisle joined to offer proposals and said they will work to get them passed by summer.
SEN. MARCO RUBIO, R-Fla.: We are dealing with 11 million human beings who are here undocumented, the vast and enormous majority of whom have come here in pursuit of what all of us would recognize as the American dream. And that’s what we endeavor to move forward here on.
GWEN IFILL: That announcement today moved immigration reform to the front burner in Congress. Eight senators, four Democrats and four Republicans, launched a renewed effort to tackle the issue after years of inaction.
SEN. ROBERT MENENDEZ, D-N.J.: I am the most optimistic I have been in quite some time. And I’m not Pollyannaish about that at all. I recognize there are difficult challenges ahead, but I just get the sense of a spirit and a commitment that is far beyond what I have seen in some time.
GWEN IFILL: The group of eight have agreed to four underlying principles, key among to create a path to legal citizenship for the 11 million undocumented people now estimated to be living in the United States. But, first, the border security would be beefed up and the government would improve its tracking of current visa holders.
The senators also want to grant more green cards to highly educated immigrants and would allow more lower-skilled workers into the country, especially for agricultural purposes. Finally, the agreement calls for an effective verification system to crack down on employers who hire workers in the country illegally.
In 2006 and 2007, similar efforts to fix the nation’s patchwork of immigration laws failed under both Republican and Democratically controlled Congresses, but Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer of New York said this time will be different.
SEN. CHARLES SCHUMER, D-N.Y.: The politics on this issue have been turn upside-down. For the first time ever, there’s more political risk in opposing immigration reform than in supporting it.
GWEN IFILL: Indeed, this new effort comes on the heels of last year’s election, in which President Obama won seven of every 10 Hispanic votes in his victory over Republican Mitt Romney.
Senator John McCain of Arizona said that’s a key reason his party must now get on board.
SEN. JOHN MCCAIN, R-Ariz.: Elections. Elections. The Republican Party is losing the support of our Hispanic citizens. And we realize that there are many issues in which we think we are in agreement with our Hispanic citizens, but this is a preeminent issue with those citizens.
In Espanol, vamanos.
GWEN IFILL: McCain also said the country cannot continue to deny citizenship to children brought to the U.S. illegally. President Obama has said immigration reform is at the top of his second-term agenda.
And, today, his spokesman, Jay Carney, welcomed the Senate agreement.
JAY CARNEY, White House Spokesman: This is a big deal. This is an important development. This is in keeping with the principles the president has been espousing for a long time, in keeping with bipartisan efforts in the past, and with the effort this president believes has to end in a law that he can sign.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Obama is scheduled to unveil his own ideas on immigration reform tomorrow in Las Vegas.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So how will the politics of this new effort shake out on Capitol Hill?
We asked two senators from the gang of eight — first, my conversation with Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois. I talked to the majority whip just a short time ago.
Senator Durbin, thank you very much for joining us.
I think one of the main questions I’m hearing is, what does this proposal mean for people living in this country illegally right now? What would happen to them?
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN, D-Ill.: Basically, it would give them a chance to go through a criminal background check to make certain that there are no problems in terms of their background, to pay a fine, to pay their taxes, and then they would be here in a probationary status, where they could not be deported. They could work.
And we watch them as a number of other things evolve and progress under the bill, border security, leading to green cards, leading to citizenship.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And we hear some advocacy organizations saying, wait a minute. Even that level of requirement is going to be a disincentive, that they’re not going to want to sign up if they have to pay a fine and so forth.
RICHARD DURBIN: Well, I will tell you, that’s going to be part of it. We believe that these people who have lived here for so many years in fear and have tried to make the best of their lives and the lives of their families are prepared to earn their way into legal status and to citizenship.
And the argument that they wouldn’t pay a fine and such, I really think this will not be a major obstacle. We just went through this with the deferred deportation under the DREAM Act. Almost 400,000 young people came forward. They paid the amount that was necessary.
JUDY WOODRUFF: We also are hearing, Senator, from labor leaders who are saying this — requiring that they provide — that illegal — folks who are here illegally provide proof of employment is going to be very difficult for many of them, because they have been working off the clock. They have been complying with rules that allow them to work, but that don’t give them actual proof.
RICHARD DURBIN: We have run into this before.
When you have been living in the shadows for years, maybe even decades, and we say to come forward, register with the government, some are afraid to do it. And those that do it say, “we don’t leave a paper trail in our lives.” Well, they have to construct something. And it’s hard. It’s difficult. But they’re doing it. The young people are doing it. And I’m convinced that many of them will be able to satisfy the requirements in the final bill.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator, another comment is, are these individuals who could be taking jobs away from Americans, people living in this country legally now?
RICHARD DURBIN: This legislation will state expressly that the first priority for jobs is to make sure Americans have a chance to fill them.
But where Americans are unavailable or uninterested in a job, then they would be available to the folks who are here undocumented at this moment. And put it in this perspective. Many of these people who are undocumented and working are being paid below minimum wage under conditions that no American worker would ever legally be required to work under.
When we start elevating the standard of employment to make sure that everyone is treated equally, there will be more opportunities for jobs across the board.
JUDY WOODRUFF: And, as you said today, Senator, there have been so many efforts to do this before. They have all failed. What makes you think this time is different?
RICHARD DURBIN: Well, I don’t want to say it expressly. Let me say it through my friend John McCain, who has stated publicly yesterday and today it’s about the last election. Many Republicans who have opposed immigration reform, those who have been lukewarm toward it looked at the results. The results are overwhelming. In the state of Texas, in the grade schools in Texas, more than half the students are nonwhite students. You take a look at Colorado in the presidential race. President Obama carried that battleground state of Colorado. He had 85 percent of the Hispanic vote.
That isn’t being lost on our Republican friends. And Senator McCain has been very forthright in saying that’s one of the reasons they want to get this done.
JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you’re confident this will pass?
RICHARD DURBIN: Well, I don’t want to say confident because I’m a senator.
And, you know, I spend my whole life disappointed. I have been 12 years on the DREAM Act.
But I have never felt better about it and more positive. And I look at the Republican senators who are there, McCain, Graham, Rubio, and I say to myself we have got some senators that can really move some votes on their side of the aisle.
JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Dick Durbin, the majority whip in the Senate, thank you.
RICHARD DURBIN: Good to be with you, Judy.
GWEN IFILL: And now we turn to another Republican senator who was there, Jeff Flake, who was just elected in Arizona.
Welcome, Senator Flake.
You see the Democrats are perfectly happy to quote John McCain as saying this is about the results of the election, this is about politics.
Is it about politics or policy?
SEN. JEFF FLAKE, R-Ariz.: Both, frankly. I think it’s the best policy.
Some of us have been at this a while. We felt that we have got to deal with this issue. But also the election had a way of focusing our attention on this issue. And whatever moves it, politics or policy, I’m grateful for and I think a lot of people will be.
GWEN IFILL: What do you say to members of your party who have already started to say this is not the right approach, this will only increase or attract more illegal immigrants?
JEFF FLAKE: I don’t think that’s the case.
I think if we put the measures in place called for by this legislation, the border security measures and also the verification for employment, then we can deal with that issue. For the first time here, we’re going to have triggers that will only grant citizenship once certain defense — or — I’m sorry — border measures are taken.
And so, for the first time, we have got measures like that. And I think that will help. That’s something we haven’t had in the past.
GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about something just short of citizenship, which is employment. Do you worry — or was there any concern in your negotiations that what you come up with here might result in taking jobs away from Americans, especially these agricultural exceptions?
JEFF FLAKE: Well, we will deal with that as we draft the legislation, but there are requirements, as Senator Durbin said, that we make sure that Americans who want to fill these jobs have the opportunity to do so.
Only when they don’t or can’t will we turn to those who want to participate in this program. So there are provisions for that.
GWEN IFILL: Senator, tell me whether I’m hearing a difference in tone now. I heard Senator Rubio say at the beginning of our piece he describes the people – people we’re talking about as 11 million human beings who are here undocumented.
That’s different from calling them illegal aliens. Is that a conscious decision to refer to these people differently?
JEFF FLAKE: Well, I think you will see a different tone all the way around.
I mean, I’m from ground zero in this issue, Arizona. And you have seen a different tone in the last year or so. And I think you will continue to see a different tone moving ahead across the entire country. So, like I said, I have worked on this issue for a while, and I have never felt better about the prospects than I do today.
GWEN IFILL: You know as well as anyone that people have gotten unused to seeing Congress across the aisle cooperate on anything.
JEFF FLAKE: Right.
GWEN IFILL: So, can you give us a peek into what brought this about, what kinds of meetings were held, how you guys came to this accommodation?
JEFF FLAKE: Well, some of these individuals have been working on this for quite a while, myself in the House. And then Senator Rubio has come just in the Senate in the last two years, and certainly adds a perspective and a voice that we needed on the Republican side.
And it was just thought that we have got to do it on an equal basis, an equal number of Republicans and Democrats, people who are interested, who have experience on the topic, and then who bring a particular unique voice to it. And so I think we have got a great group to start with. And I think you will see it expand pretty rapidly.
GWEN IFILL: This hinges in part on getting border security ramped up. Is that something that is doable?
JEFF FLAKE: It is.
In Arizona now, we have an example of where it works, the so-called Yuma sector, which is about 88 miles of border in Arizona. We have operational control there, have had for the last couple of years. So we know what can work. Now, the Tucson sector, which makes up most of the rest of the border, is more difficult terrain. However, it can be done, if we have the will to do it.
GWEN IFILL: And, finally, Senator, you are recently, as you mentioned, a member of the House.
JEFF FLAKE: Right.
GWEN IFILL: What do you think are the prospects for this legislation and anything you come up with in the House?
JEFF FLAKE: I think it’s obviously a more difficult lift in the House. But for those who aren’t particularly as excited as I am and others are about the prospect of immigration reform, I think a lot of those same people want to get this issue in the rear-view mirror.
And so there’s motivation to get it behind us for those who don’t want to deal with it as well. And so I think that we have the planets aligned here now to move ahead.
GWEN IFILL: Senator Jeff Flake, new Republican from Arizona, congratulations on that, by the way.
JEFF FLAKE: Thank you.