In a bold stroke, eight U.S. senators hope to pull off what the late Sen. Ted Kennedy and President George W. Bush could not -- pass a comprehensive immigration bill for the first time in decades.
The sweeping proposal, unveiled early Wednesday morning, not only legalizes the estimated 11 million or more immigrants living here illegally, but could ease entry for some waiting in line legally abroad. It adds several new visa categories to provide labor for the hotel, housing and high-tech industries. Agriculture also would receive a big boost and up to 337,000 new workers over three years.
Most of the new workers are eligible to stay in the U.S. indefinitely, either as legal permanent residents or citizens.
After meeting with President Obama Tuesday afternoon, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said: "While he certainly might not agree with every single part of it, he was very supportive of the bill we have put together and simply wants to make sure we keep moving it along and get something done."
The new bill is a radical departure from the last major overhaul bill in 2007, which fell victim to numerous amendments and finally died in May that year by 14 votes in the Senate. Then-President Bush lost 37 of 49 Republicans. On the Democratic side, Kennedy lost 15 votes.
The atmosphere today is different, shaped by a more secure border, a more subdued Republican Party on the issue, and a slower economy. The National Guard is gone from the border as are so-called vigilante groups like the Minute Men, which helped polarize public opinion.
Today, Americans say dealing the illegal immigrants currently in the U.S. is more important than securing the border, according to a new Gallup poll. That is a reversal from 2007. Even in places like Phoenix, the site of numerous immigration rallies in 2007, attitudes are changing.
"It is not just an issue of just building a wall, not just kicking people out or border security," said Arizona State Rep. Martin Quezada. "But there are families involved, the economy, this affects our schools."
So how does the 2007 proposal compare with the 2013 proposal?
-- In 2007 illegal immigrants had to return to their home country "before" applying for a green card. Not so today. Those currently in the U.S. illegally would receive immediate probationary status and be allowed to work. They are not required to return to their country of origin. They are eligible for citizenship after 13 years, after paying fines and any back taxes.
-- The 2007 bill required "operational control" of the border before legalization. The 2013 bill gives the Border Patrol six months to come up with "strategy." Within five years, the agency must be capable of apprehending 90 percent of those who cross in sectors that see more than 30,000 arrests per year.
Currently that only applies to three of nine sectors on the southwest border -- Tucson, Rio Grande Valley and Laredo. Critics say the metric is vague, since in many areas it is impossible to know how many illegal crossers agents did not catch.
"It's three strikes and you're out for the Senate's immigration proposal," Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas said Tuesday. "First, it legalizes almost everyone in the country illegally before the border is secured. This, of course, will encourage even more illegal immigration."
Alex Conant, a spokesman for Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., rebutted Smith, saying: "To have an honest debate, we need to be clear about the facts...Our legislation will implement the toughest border security and immigration law enforcement in US history before a single illegal immigrant is able to apply for permanent residence in the US."
-- In 2007, up to 200,000 guest workers could stay for two years before being required to return home. An amendment, pushed by organized labor and supported by then-Sen. Barack Obama and sponsored by Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, ended the program after just five years.
Previously, under existing law the U.S. issued 480,000 additional visas, most for immediate family members of new immigrants and legal permanent residents. The 2013 bill increases America's overall number of allowable immigrants. It installs a new "W" visa for up to 200,000 low skilled immigrants, and another 120,000 "merit based" visas annually for extremely talented immigrants. It removes any caps for extremely talented individuals in the arts, education, sports and sciences. It also increases from 65,000 to as many as 180,000 visas for U.S. businesses, known as H1Bs.
"The people of America want a secure border and the rule of law enforced," said Arizona state Sen. John Kavanaugh, who listened to conservative radio hosts help defeat the 20007 bill. "We can have limited legal immigration provided it doesn't depress American wages.
-- Like the 2007 bill, the 2013 version dedicates substantial funding for border security, and even adds money for fencing, something the Obama administration has not considered a priority.
The 2013 also requires employers use an electronic database known as E-Verify to verify all non-citizens are authorized to work. While this is a concession to hard liners, employers have two to five years to meet the mandate, depending on their size. The 2007 bill also made this an employer mandate, and implied that no part of the reform proposal could go forward until the all employers used E-Verify.
William La Jeunesse joined FOX News Channel (FNC) in March 1998 and currently serves as a Los Angeles-based correspondent.