CAPITOL HILL — After an election in which Hispanic voters overwhelmingly supported President Barack Obama and Democratic candidates, Republican and Democratic lawmakers are presenting new proposals on reforming U.S. immigration laws.
Members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, a group of Democratic, Hispanic lawmakers from the Senate and House of Representatives, held a news conference Wednesday to lay out their fundamental principles for comprehensive immigration reform.
Democratic Congressman Luis Gutierrez of Illinois said his caucus has been working since 2004 to try to get Congress to reform the nation's immigration laws, but he said Republicans had "demonized" immigrants instead of tackling reform.
"Because of congressional inaction, good people, good people who are only asking for the chance to work hard and help their communities and keep their families together, have been forced to stay in the shadows and been forced to go around our legal system because they could find no way through it," he said.
The principles laid out by congressional Democrats would require undocumented immigrants to come forward and register with the government and pass an English language test and pay taxes before they would be able to join the process to become U.S. citizens.
Democratic Senator Robert Menendez said the United States would benefit from bringing the estimated 11 million undocumented people living in this country out of the shadows.
"Reform is in our economic interest as well our national security. I cannot know who is here to pursue the 'American Dream' versus who is here to do it harm unless I get millions of people out of the shadows into the light and come forth and register with the government," he said.
On Tuesday, three Republican senators introduced their own immigration bill, known as the "Achieve Act," which would grant a pathway to permanent residency - but not citizenship - to some undocumented young immigrants who serve in the military or attend college in the United States.
Outgoing Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson of Texas said her party's proposal would not give special preference to immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally over those seeking to come to the country legally.
"They [illegal immigrants] will not get in the front of the line, they will get in the back of the line. They are not kept from getting that citizenship track, nor are they given a preference in that citizenship track," she said.
Senator Hutchinson and outgoing Republican Arizona Senator Jon Kyl said they believe it is better to tackle the tough problem of immigration one step at a time, instead of trying to enact a massive reform of the system.
Congressional Democrats rejected the Republican proposal, saying it would not go far enough to help young immigrants to achieve their dreams. But Gutierrez said it is a step forward for Republicans.
"It is too little too late. But it does mark something different. During the election and during the campaign, what they said was self-deportation," he said.
When asked about the millions of undocumented workers already living in the United States during the campaign, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney had suggested self-deportation as an option.
A number of Republican leaders say their party needs to reform its own thinking about immigration in order to be more competitive in future elections. Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida says it is "really hard to get people to listen to you on economic growth, on tax rates, on health care, if they think you want to deport their grandmother."
Republican House Speaker John Boehner says he is sure that he can reach a deal with the White House next year on comprehensive immigration reform.