immigrant deported from Riverside, Calif. sits next the hole he lives in beneath Tijuana's fetid river canal.
(Amy Isackson for NPR)
May 14, 2013

Living on the Border, Driven — Literally — Underground

After living underground in the United States — figuratively speaking — some undocumented immigrants deported to the Mexican border city of Tijuana are living in holes.

These migrants have dug bunkers along Tijuana's sewage canal to protect themselves from police who routinely burn down their makeshift homes.

The Tijuana River is lined in concrete and cuts through the city for miles, draining sewage and runoff. Human feces litters the banks, trash swirls around in sudsy eddies and a dead dog occasionally floats by. It is estimated that between 1,000 to 3,000 people live along the river, many of them deported from the United States, like Abimael Martinez.

Martinez stands over a hole he dug; this is where he lives. The riverbed hasn't always been home. Martinez owned an auto body shop in Riverside, Calif., for eight years. He went to church, had a girlfriend and was like a dad to her kids. But two years ago, he was deported for driving without a license.

So he's homeless in the Tijuana canal and has fallen into the cross hairs of the police. The authorities think deportees are vagrants and criminals, and sweep through the river canal to flush them out.

"A policeman took my backpack and threw it in a fire when they came and burnt our stuff," he says through a translator.

After that, Martinez began to bury his belongings for safekeeping. That worked well, so he made himself a hole to live in. Martinez has reinforced the walls with wood that he collected at building demolition sites around the city. He brags that a police truck rolled over a few days ago and it didn't cave in.

Inside, there's no room to stand up. The space is about as big as two refrigerators laid side by side.

Martinez made a lid for his hole from a Styrofoam cooler. When the police come, he pulls it over the entrance. It lies flush with the riverbed and looks like just another piece of trash.

The U.S. government has returned hundreds of thousands of people from the U.S. to Tijuana since 2009. That includes a combination of people formally deported and those caught and returned the same day. In fact, more people have been removed to Tijuana than to any other Mexican border city.

Blaming Deportees

Tijuana's police chief, Alberto Capella Ibarra, says deportees have become the city's No. 1 problem.

"It has social repercussions, repercussions in the city's image because it's people that look like they don't have anything to do wandering around the city," Capella says.

Many deportees stay in Tijuana because they consider the U.S. home. They want to cross again — or at least feel close to their families there. But beefed up border enforcement means deportees are bottled up. That's why hundreds live in the fetid canal, in drainpipes, even in trees.

Capella blames these people for crime, especially, he says, the ex-convicts who served time in U.S. prisons.

"What are we going to do? Cross our arms and hope that the problem resolves itself? Or do what we need to, assuming the risk that one of us could go too far?" he says.

Capella has been criticized for violating deportees' civil rights. He says it isn't police policy but may happen in the course of keeping the peace.

The number of people removed to Tijuana actually dropped to a historic low last year. Of those U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement sent home worldwide, fewer than 0.3 percent were murderers. Many had no criminal record.

Nevertheless, blaming deportees for crime has caught fire among Tijuana's leaders.

"We can't think that all migrants are criminals," says Father Ernesto Hernandez Ruiz, who runs the Padre Chava soup kitchen in downtown Tijuana.

Twelve hundred people eat breakfast here every morning. Father Hernandez says the vast majority are deportees. Many live in the river canal, like Martinez.

"For the police in Mexico, just seeing someone dirty and disoriented like that is enough to detain them," Martinez says.

Hernandez says for deportees, it's a quick slide into desperation.

Back beneath the riverbank, Martinez sorts scrap metal to try to make a few pesos. He saves the nails because he's remodeling.

"People have begun dropping their backpacks off with me for safekeeping before they go to work. So, I want to separate the drop-off space from the bed," he says.

Martinez says he's proud of his ingenuity.

"It sets an example and a lot of people are building now," he says.

Martinez estimates he's seen at least 25 people digging recently. He says they all hope to get out of their holes soon and cross back to the U.S.

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Shahid Khan
(University of Illinois)
May 13, 2013

U of I Commencement Speaker Urges Grads to Take "Harder Road"

Billionaire businessman Shahid Khan gave the commencement address Sunday at two seperate ceremonies on the University of Illinois’ Urbana campus. 

Khan, a native of Pakistan who received his engineering degree at the U of I in 1971, urged students to build their futures from scratch, rather than taking the easy road to success. The 61-year-old runs the Urbana-based auto parts manufacturer Flex-N-Gate, and also owns the National Football League's Jacksonville Jaguars.

Kahn said when he was seeking his first job out of college that would allow him to receive a green card and stay in the U.S., he took a position at what was then a blacksmith’s shop in Urbana, with the name of Flex-N-Gate, turning down a better-paying and easier job at a Campustown ice cream parlor.

Khan said that at the time, there were concerns about him taking work away from American citizens.

“Yes, I did take that job,” said Khan about his first position with the company he would eventually buy, “and in the process created thousands of jobs right here in America. Imagine if we fixed immigration, how many more millions of jobs will be created in America.”

Speaking at a second commencement ceremony a few hours later, Kahn urged students to continue dreaming big and working hard, despite the challenges that may exist.

“Whether you’re foreign born like me or sons of daughter of Illinois, the American dream belongs to everyone and all of you have the opportunity and the obligation to seize all that it has to offer,” Khan. “You can aspire to anything less. You cannot settle for anything less, and you cannot accept the inevitability of being told no.”

During both addresses, Khan praised students who choose the “harder road,” when they provide the potential for greater gains.

He told the graduates that the luckier among them were those who did not already have jobs lined, up, “but are committed to creating their own path, their own job, their own future.” Khan concluded, “As creators, you will face hardship, uncertainty, but in the end reap unimaginable awards.”

The commencement ceremony took place at the University of Illinois' State Farm Center (previously named Assembly Hall).

Outside the facility, a group of demonstrators held signs criticizing Khan and the university’s selection of him as commencement speaker. “Dangerous, Toxic + Low Paid; Hey UI Grads, Kahn Has a Job For You,” read one of the signs.

A Facebook page advertising the demonstration cited OSHA violations at the Flex-N-Gate Urbana plant, due to a lack of proper training and protective equipment that exposed workers to the toxic chemical, chromium VI.

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(J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
May 09, 2013

Senate Immigration Bill Clears First Tests

The bipartisan group of senators supporting a plan to overhaul immigration laws has been sticking together on Thursday, amid a critical series of early test votes.

The coalition turned back challenges from conservative critics as the Senate Judiciary Committee worked to refine the legislation. It would secure the nation's borders and offer eventual citizenship to millions who are currently living illegally in the United States.

The panel rejected three efforts by opponents of the bill to toughen the improvements that must be made to border security before unauthorized immigrants can apply for legal status.

Republicans Lindsey Graham and Jeff Flake -- part of the bipartisan group that helped draft the measure -- joined all 10 Democrats on the panel in blocking each of the changes.

If the political alignment remains intact, the committee is expected to approve the measure within two weeks. That would clear the way for a showdown on the Senate floor in June.

President Barack Obama has made the bill a top priority in the opening months of his second term.


immigration rally
(Ross D. Franklin/AP)
May 09, 2013

In Newsrooms, Some Immigration Terms Are Going Out of Style

Journalists make choices all the time that influence our understanding of the news — the choice of what stories to cover, which people to interview, which words to use. And major news organizations have been reconsidering how best to describe a group of people whose very presence in this country breaks immigration law.

News organizations as institutions often decide which terms to use in describing contentious subjects, then codify them in what are called stylebooks. They are subject to change just as society's views change. Just consider terms used to describe race in this country.

"It goes back to the Garden of Eden," says former New York Times and Washington Post reporter Roberto Suro. "Naming is the first power that humans got and it's still the most powerful that the human intellect received from its creator."

Now a scholar at the University of Southern California, Suro says that when it comes to describing people who are in this country illegally, the media are reflecting the times.

"News organizations are kind of struggling. I believe they are reflecting what's happening in society, where what we see in the political arena is a society that's trying to sort out how to think about these people and where they belong in our society."

Protesters demonstrate in downtown Orlando, Fla., on May 1, 2006. Most news outlets have long abandoned the use of the term Moving Toward A Fuller Description

As Congress debates the merits of creating a quicker means for people here illegally to obtain citizenship, several major news outlets have shifted their policies. In April, the Associated Press decided the word "illegal" should only be used to describe actions, not people — the issue of illegal immigration, rather than illegal immigrants.

At the Los Angeles Times, Assistant Managing Editor Henry Fuhrmann noticed reporters were writing articles where they did not use the term "illegal immigrant" even though it was preferred.

Fuhrmann oversees standards as well as the paper's copy editing desk, which enforces those standards.

"I thought we either had to affirm our style and try to apply it more regularly or in fact listen to the voice of the newsroom as we're listening to the voices outside the newsroom and say maybe it was time for a fresh start."

Fuhrmann himself is the son of an American father and a Japanese mother. He was born in Japan while his father served in the Navy, and years after moving to the U.S. his mother became a naturalized citizen. He recalls asking one reporter which terms he used in his coverage.

"He found, to his surprise, that he would use 'illegal immigrant' if he was talking to, say, advocates of, say, stricter border control and he would use 'undocumented immigrant' if he was talking more to those being described."

The Los Angeles Times changed its policy, dropping both "illegal immigrants" and "undocumented immigrants" for a fuller description of those people. The New York Times has not abandoned "illegal immigrant" but encourages deeper characterization — a position shared by NPR.

A Politically Loaded Decision

Mickey Kaus of the right-of-center website The Daily Caller has been critical of pushes to relax immigration restrictions. He says journalists are bending to ideological pressure.

"It's heavily politically loaded," he says. "I think 'illegal immigrants' is really quite a clear phrase. It's so clear that President Obama used it when he was trying to make himself clear in a speech. He later apologized, but the fact that he used it implies that it is a very useful shorthand, as are all words, for what you're talking about."

Kaus says news organizations are tying themselves in knots to not offend Latino activists, Latino consumers and the advertisers who hope to reach them.

"Now we have this theory that no one word can possibly describe the inevitable state of being, whatever it is. Maybe it should be an unpronounceable symbol like Prince, 'cause we don't dare give it a name. Language is supposed to give things names and I don't think 'illegal immigrant' is that offensive a name."

Failing To Sidestep The Debate

The Fox News Channel has some particularly interesting contortions on the subject. In late April, while filling in for Sean Hannity, Monica Crowley went old-school and used the term "illegals." Fox News' preferred term is "illegal immigrant," though anchor Shepard Smith will sometimes use the phrase "undocumented immigrant." In March of last year, Bryan Llenas, a reporter for Fox News' sister website, Fox News Latino, told Fox viewers why the issue is charged for Hispanics.

"Nine in 10 support the DREAM Act; 85 percent support undocumented workers working in this country. And if you ask them whether they prefer the word 'illegal' versus 'undocumented,' a majority of them believe that the word 'illegal,' the term 'illegal immigrant,' is offensive."

That's why Fox News Latino doesn't use it. USC's Suro says journalists are attempting to sidestep the raging political debate — but they can't avoid getting swept up in it.

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U.S. Capitol
(Jason Reed/Reuters/Landov)
May 06, 2013

Some Democrats Back Same-Sex Amendment to Immigration Bill

The immigration overhaul bill before the Senate would provide, among other things, more visas for migrant farm workers and high-tech workers, and a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.

One thing it would not provide is help for same-sex couples in which one partner is an American and one foreign-born. For heterosexual couples, a foreign-born spouse automatically qualifies for a green card and many of the benefits of citizenship. Not so with gay and lesbian couples.

Some Democrats hope to change that with an amendment.

What's At Stake

On a perfect spring evening in a suburban Maryland park, Liora Moriel and Susan Kirshner are watching their 9-year-old twins at baseball practice.

Moriel was born in Israel 64 years ago and would like to retire in the not too distant future from her teaching job at the University of Maryland. But she has a temporary visa, not a green card. Kirshner, her partner of 27 years and a federal employee, says her benefits don't cover Moriel.

"For us, the issue is largely going to focus around Liora's ability to retire and maintain the kinds of social services that she will need as a retired person, even though she's been living and working in this country and contributing and paying taxes — that's all at stake," Kirshner says. "Our ability to stay here together as a family is in jeopardy if this bill doesn't pass."

The bill is actually an amendment to the immigration overhaul that has been proposed by the so-called Gang of Eight senators — four Republicans and four Democrats.

Steve Ralls of the group Immigration Equality says it would give same-sex couples the same rights as heterosexuals.

"As most people understand, when an American citizen marries a spouse from abroad, that spouse is then eligible for a green card here in the United States," Ralls says. "For gay and lesbian couples, that option is not available. Because of the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal government has been unable to confer immigration benefits to the partners of American citizens."

But the Defense of Marriage Act is before the Supreme Court, and the issue could become moot if the justices decide to overturn the law. Backers of the amendment are unwilling, however, to place their bets on the court ruling in their favor.

Immigration Equality estimates some 35,000 to 40,000 gay and lesbian couples are affected.

'Hard Enough To Do As Is'

But support for the amendment is tenuous. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops opposes it. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican and Gang of Eight member, says approving the amendment could spell doom for the entire immigration bill.

"This issue is so complicated. The immigration issue has so many land mines and pitfalls that it's going to be hard enough to do as is," he told the website Buzzfeed in February. "I think if that issue becomes the central issue in the debate, it's just going to make it harder to get it done because there's going to be a lot of strong feelings about it on both sides."

House Republicans, already balking at the immigration measure, are thought to be even less likely to support it if it confers rights to same-sex couples. Backers of the amendment also worry that not all Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee are onboard.

Still, Moriel says she's optimistic.

"Both of us were quite active in the gay-rights movement in Israel, and we always said that, you know, the United States was our beacon," she says. "I think all over the world, people think that way and to then realize that Israel is far ahead of the United States on this issue in sexuality, it's quite strange."

Amendment backers will be closely watching the Senate Judiciary Committee to see whether Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., formally files the measure for consideration by Tuesday afternoon's deadline.


immigration rally
(Nam Y. Huh/AP)
May 02, 2013

Dream Fund Scholarship Date Pushed Back

A program awarding scholarships to immigrant students in Illinois has pushed back the date it planned to give out the money. Scholarships were supposed to go out in April, but that was timeframe was moved to June 7 because of the large number of people who applied.

The Illinois Dream Fund offers financial aid to students who are living in the United States illegally or students living in the country legally who don't qualify for any type of federal student aid.

Tanya Cabrera, who oversees the Dream Fund, said she received 1,400 applications in the last several months, more than twice what she expected.

“It was just really overwhelming because we didn’t think we’d get that many applications, and now to have that turnout in a month was just unrealistic,” she said. “Each applicant is worthy, but we also have to understand how many can we give out.”

Cabrera said postponing the award date from the end of April to June will give the Dream Fund more time to raise additional scholarship money.

“Looking at the applications, and just hearing the stories of these students,” Cabrera explained. “You’re empowered to do more. The goal is to raise this money and make it happen for 100 plus if we can.”

Cabrera said the Dream Fund has raised more than a million dollars so far, but she said she would like to get to $5 million.

The program was set up by the Illinois Dream Act, which is a law that increases immigrant students’ access to college. However, scholarship money comes from private donations.

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American farms like this iceberg lettuce field owned by Duda Farm Fresh Foods outside Salinas, Calif., are facing a dwindling supply of farmworkers from rural Mexico.
(Kirk Siegler/NPR)
April 30, 2013

Why An Immigration Deal Won't Solve Farmworker Shortage

The Salinas Valley in Northern California grows about 80 percent of the country's lettuce, and it takes a lot of people to pick and pack it.

In a field owned by Duda Farm Fresh Foods, a dozen lechugueros, or lettuce pickers, are bent at the waist, cutting heads of iceberg lettuce. They work frantically to stay in front of a line of 12 more packers, who seal them with tape and toss them onto a conveyor belt.

"There's a lot more going on here than meets the eye," says Sammy Duda, the company's vice president. "The way the lettuce is trimmed is much more difficult to do if you don't trim it properly."

Duda hires 1,000 or more field workers every harvest, paying them about $12 an hour. Many don't have papers, but Duda says he has no other choice. Hardly any Americans apply for these jobs, he says, and most who do, don't stay.

"This has always been an immigrant job, whether it's, like I say, back from the Dust Bowl group," Duda says. "This is not a new phenomenon."

Labor shortages aren't a new phenomenon, either, in this valley made famous by John Steinbeck. But things have gotten worse lately.

A lot of the migrant workers who came from rural Mexico are getting too old for this back-breaking work, and their kids don't want to do it at all.

"It's hard, because I've been working in the fields for like 12 years now," says 29-year-old Marco Lara.

He says many of his extended family and friends back in his native Mexican state of Michoacan don't want to cross the border right now. Hiring a "coyote" costs a lot more than it once did, and the border is a lot more dangerous.

"There's people that just don't want to risk coming here," Lara says. "I [lost] two friends on the border three years ago."

Duda says the proposed immigration overhaul bill might solve some of these problems. For one, it would give thousands of workers a path to legal residency and make it easier for others to enter the U.S. But he says those things are probably just stopgap fixes.

"It'll help us in the short term. The long term? Remains to be seen," Duda says.

Since the late 1990s, there has been a slow but steady decline in the number of rural Mexicans migrating north. Agriculture economist Ed Taylor at the University of California, Davis, says that decline has little to do with U.S. immigration policy.

Taylor's research suggests that declining birth rates in rural Mexico, where the economy has also improved in recent years, is the reason why fewer migrants are coming to the U.S. And since farms in Mexico have also expanded to meet the year-round produce demands north of the border, why risk going north?

"Many [American] farmers also have this sense that, if Washington can just get its house in order and pass immigration reform, their problems will be over, and that isn't what our research is showing," Taylor says.

Farms here are going to have to learn how to do more with less immigrant labor, Taylor says. That means switching to less labor-intensive crops, or mechanization.

In the Salinas Valley town of Gonzales, Frank Maconachy with the company Ramsay Highlander may have an answer for farmers worried about big labor shortages.

"The labor resource is dwindling, so we needed to develop a machine that could mechanically cut ... efficiently, effectively, safely and get the crop to market competitively," he says.

That machine is an automatic spinach harvester. His company custom builds them to suit individual farmers' needs — different blades and equipment to pick celery, for example. But the main point is it reduces the need for workers.

"One operator can now harvest 12- to 15,000 pounds of spinach or baby leaf in an hour, where typically a crew of 30 people would be on their hands and knees cutting this with knives and would do half of that volume at best," Maconachy says.

But efficiency comes with a price: $250,000 for one of these machines.

Sammy Duda isn't quite ready to make that kind of investment. Machines can't do everything, he says. "It's very difficult to duplicate the eyes and the feel of a worker when it comes to maturity and quality of the crop."

Even as he focuses on the current immigration bill and whether it will help him get enough workers to get through these next few years, he knows his business is going to have to change. Technology once radically changed this valley when refrigeration allowed iceberg lettuce to be shipped all over the country.

"This particular valley was founded on innovation," he says. "There's a lot of bright people that have their radar going, and so as labor issues change, we adapt or we die."

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Frances Herbert, right, and her wife, Takako Ueda, pose for photos with their dog, Little Bear, at their home in Dummerston, Vt., Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2011.
(Matthew Cavanaugh/AP)
April 24, 2013

Gay Rights Groups: Don’t Leave Us Out of Immigration Bills

Some gay rights groups in Illinois are now applying their own political pressure in the fight to overhaul the nation’s immigration system, as they worry a final deal could leave same-sex couples in the lurch.

The political difficulty of recognizing same-sex couples in U.S. immigration law was on display Monday, when U.S. Reps. Luis Gutierrez, a liberal Chicago Democrat, and Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican and former GOP vice presidential nominee, made stops in Chicago to plug their ideas for an immigration overhaul in the House.

Bipartisanship and compromise were the buzzwords of the day, until someone in the audience at a downtown luncheon asked whether Gutierrez thought the immigration changes would recognize same-sex relationships.

“And I will fight for it, but I do not believe it will be in a bill,” Gutierrez said, adding that he supported the idea, but was concerned about its ability to gain support in Congress.

After a long pause, Ryan, who opposes same-sex marriage, chimed in.

“So I’m gonna stick with just the immigration stuff here,” he said, giving a nervous laugh.

The exchange illustrates the political challenge of including so-called bi-national same-sex couples in an immigration overhaul, particularly in the GOP-led House of Representatives, where cobbling together bipartisan support for an immigration bill is already a tall order, even without tossing in the hot-button issue of gay rights.

But some activists in Chicago say recognition for same-sex couples must be included. They were surprised that Gutierrez seemed to declare the idea dead on arrival, even before a House bill has been introduced.

Recognition in U.S. immigration law would mean a same-sex relationship could be grounds to grant legal status to a foreign spouse, or to prevent their deportation. It could also help gay foreign couples who are working in the U.S. on visas.

Those laws currently apply only to heterosexual couples because federal law defines marriage as being between one man and one woman, though the U.S. Supreme Court is now reviewing the issue.

That provision could have a big impact on the lives of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender immigrants who are now in the U.S. illegally – about 267,000 people, according to an estimate from the Williams Institute, a think tank that researches LGBT legal issues.

Gutierrez’s political calculus doesn’t sit well Julio Rodriguez. He chairs the LGBTQ Immigration Rights Coalition of Chicago, which advocates for gay rights in immigration law.

“You can’t pick and choose when you wanna be our allies,” Rodriguez said, adding that full recognition for same-sex couples is the right thing to do, regardless of political difficulties.

“We helped elect many of those folks who are sitting in Congress that are our allies,” he said. “We’ve provided financial resources, we’ve provided people on the ground, and we expect a return on that investment.”

Recognition for same-sex couples is not included in the sweeping immigration overhaul bill introduced in the Democrat-controlled Senate last week, though gay rights activists say they’re lobbying Illinois’ Senators to have it included via a later amendment.

But Gutierrez’s suggestion that it may not be included in a House version came as news to some of his allies in Chicago’s gay rights community.

“That is very surprising to me,” said Jane Merrill, with the Center on Halsted, an LGBTQ community center on Chicago’s North Side. “Though the bi-national same-sex couple provision was on in there, there was a lot of positive feeling that it would be.”

Passing immigration reform and recognizing same-sex couples in immigration law shouldn't be mutually exclusive, Merrill said.

But Randy Hannig, Director of Public Policy at Equality Illinois, suggested his group’s lobbying efforts will remain focused on the Senate for the time being.

“We realize just how hard a lot of our issues [will] be to make it through both chambers before we make it to the president’s desk,” Hannig said. “I guess for lack of a better term, we’re definitely keeping it real.”

Gutierrez, for his part, said in an interview with WBEZ on Tuesday he wants to include same-sex couples in an immigration overhaul. He pointed to his longtime support of gay rights, though in the past, he’s gone back on forth on how hard to push for them when it comes to his trademark issue of immigration reform.

Now, as one of the key Democrats working to navigate a massive immigration overhaul through the GOP-led House, Guiterrez said he’s simply being realistic when he tells his allies in the gay rights movement that the votes aren’t there.

“You shouldn’t pander,” he said. “You shouldn’t raise false expectations. That’s not what I expect from a friend and an ally.”

Gutierrez said he hopes to introduce the House immigration overhaul bill he’s drafting with Rep. Ryan in a few weeks. But the whole question could be moot by the end of June, when the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on the federal definition of marriage.


April 23, 2013

Bill Grants Indiana Tuition for Some Immigrants

Indiana legislators have approved allowing in-state tuition rates for people who entered the country illegally and were attending a public college when a state immigration law passed two years ago.

The Senate voted 34-15 Monday in favor of the bill, which was previously approved by the House.

Supporters say the change would help a couple hundred students who had the rules changed on them after they had already started work on their college degrees. They say many of those students came to Indiana as young children and have been caught in the middle of the national debate over immigration laws.

Affected immigrants still couldn't receive state college financial aid and new students wouldn't be eligible for in-state tuition.

The bill now goes to the governor for consideration.


April 01, 2013

Immigration Deal At Hand, Focus Turns to Details

Big business and big labor have settled on a political framework for an immigration overhaul. Now, the lawmakers writing bipartisan legislation need to resolve the nitty-gritty — and keep their parties' political flanks mollified.

Business and labor negotiators late last week agreed on a deal that would allow tens of thousands of low-skilled workers into the country and pay them fair wages. It was a last major sticking point before the deal goes to the eight senators — four Democrats, four Republicans — to sign off on the details and propose legislation. They are looking to set in motion the most dramatic changes to the faltering U.S. immigration system in more than two decades.

"There are a few details yet. But conceptually, we have an agreement between business and labor, between ourselves that has to be drafted," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

The so-called Gang of Eight's plan would provide a new class of worker visas for low-skilled workers, secure the border, crack down on employers, improve legal immigration and create a 13-year pathway to citizenship for the millions of illegal immigrants already here.

"With the agreement between business and labor, every major policy issue has been resolved," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat who brokered the labor-business deal.

But that effort hasn't taken the form of a bill and the senators searching for a compromise haven't met about the potential breakthrough. They plan to introduce their framework when they return from recess the week of April 8 and move quickly to schedule a vote.

Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., said the hard part is done.

"That doesn't mean we've crossed every 'i' or dotted every 't,' or vice versa," Flake said.

But even as the final stages of talks begin, one member of the group urged colleagues not to get too far ahead of themselves. Just before lawmakers began appearing on Sunday shows to discuss the breakthrough, Sen. Marco Rubio warned he was not ready to lend his name — and political clout — to such a deal without hashing out the details.

"Reports that the bipartisan group of eight senators have agreed on a legislative proposal are premature," said Rubio, a Florida Republican who is among the lawmakers working to write the legislation.

Rubio, a Cuban-American who is weighing a presidential bid in 2016, is a leading figure inside his party. Lawmakers will be closely watching any deal for his approval, and his skepticism about the process did little to encourage optimism.

Rubio, who is the group's emissary to conservatives, called the agreement "a starting point" but noted 92 senators from 43 states haven't yet been involved in the process.

That's where figures such as Rubio and assistant Democratic leader Dick Durbin of Illinois come in. Both will be able to give political cover to — or coax — members of their party who were not involved in drafting this agreement that could allow an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants to earn U.S. citizenship.

"As to the 11 million, they'll have a pathway to citizenship, but it will be earned, it will be long, and it will be hard, and I think it is fair," Graham said.

A week ago, such a compromise seemed impossible.

Then the pro-business U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO labor coalition reached its deal late Friday to allow tens of thousands of low-skilled workers into the country to fill jobs in construction, restaurants and hotels.

Schumer negotiated the deal between Chamber of Commerce head Tom Donohue and AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka during a late Friday phone call. Under the compromise, the government would create a new "W" visa for low-skilled workers, who would earn the same wages paid to Americans or the prevailing wages for the industry they're working in, whichever is higher. The Labor Department would determine prevailing wage based on customary rates in specific localities, so it would vary from city to city.

The detente between the powerful business lobbying group and the nation's leading labor federation still needs senators' approval, including a nod from Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican whose previous efforts came up short. He has returned to the negotiating table yet again.

The immigration debate already has President Barack Obama's attention.

"This is a legacy item for him," said David Axelrod, a longtime political confidant of Obama. "There is no doubt in my mind that he wants to pass comprehensive immigration reform."

Graham was interviewed Sunday on CNN's "State of the Union." Schumer, Flake and Axelrod appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press."


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