By Richard Cowan and Rachelle Younglai
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A group of Democratic and Republican senators on Tuesday unveiled long-awaited landmark legislation to remove the threat of deportation for millions of illegal immigrants and give them an opportunity to eventually become U.S. citizens.
Under the proposal, undocumented immigrants who came to the United States before December 31, 2011, and had stayed in the country continuously could apply for "provisional" legal status as soon as six months after the bill is signed by the president.
But beyond that, they would have to wait a decade or more for full citizenship which would entitle them to federal benefits, while the government works on further securing U.S. borders and enforcing the new immigration law.
The bill's sponsors - four Democrats and four Republicans - felt such conditions were necessary to help their plan succeed where similar measures have failed, mostly because of opposition to what opponents see as "amnesty" for law-breakers.
Even with the many caveats, the proposal faces months of debate, scores of amendments and potentially significant opposition, particularly in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.
"It's nothing but a starting point," Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa told reporters on Tuesday. He is the senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee, the panel that will manage the immigration bill.
Two of the bill's sponsors, Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York and Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, were expected to meet with President Barack Obama on Tuesday to review their work and its prospects.
Indeed, much of the legislation was designed to make the bill palatable to Republicans.
Billions of dollars in new money would be funneled into additional border security to discourage people from avoiding detection as they crossed Mexico's border with the United States.
The measure would focus on tightening porous zones in "high-risk" areas like parts of Arizona where law enforcement has had less success in sealing the border, in part because of a more difficult terrain.
The bill sets a goal of stopping 90 percent of illegal crossings at the riskiest sections of the southern border with Mexico, either by catching people or forcing them to go back to their country.
MORE VISAS FOR SOME JOBS
The proposal would expand access to both low- and high-skilled labor for American businesses, attempting to keep organized labor happy with provisions designed to keep companies from hiring cheap foreign labor or filling jobs with immigrants when U.S. workers are available.
For the technology sector, it increases the number of visas available for educated workers filling specialized jobs, though it imposes new pay requirements designed to keep the hiring from depressing wages for U.S. technology workers.
Heavy lobbying, which could complicate passage, is already underway on the visa provisions, with the construction industry, for example, unhappy with a cap placed on the number of foreigners available for construction jobs.
Still, one immigration expert who had been briefed on details of the measure before the outline was provided to reporters called it "a very smart, strategic and forward-looking bill."
For all the bill's emphasis on border control and visas, the "pathway to citizenship" remained at its heart, even though the phrase was not used in the outline made available to reporters.
Within six months from enactment, during which time the Department of Homeland Security would set out its border security plan, the threat of deportation could end for most illegal immigrants. They would be allowed to work legally in the United States once they pay an initial $500 penalty and any back taxes, and if they can show they have not been convicted of a serious crime in the United States.
After 10 years the immigrants could apply for a "green card," or permanent resident status, through an expanded merit-based immigration system. Those applications could be processed whether or not the government achieved a 90 percent success rate in securing border hot spots.
The green card would not be automatic, although a Senate aide said the majority of the 11 million illegal immigrants would likely get it via the merit-based visa. The total amount of penalties paid would amount to $2,000.
After the 10-year wait for a green card, it could take an additional three years to win U.S. citizenship.
The bill was crafted by four Democratic senators: Schumer, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado; and Republicans McCain, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida.
While Republican concerns have been muted somewhat by the clout demonstrated in the 2012 presidential election by Latino voters, the party is by no means united on immigration. Indeed, Rubio could jeopardize his popularity among the most conservative Republican Party activists, including those who would have a say in picking a presidential candidate.
Rubio, who had been a favorite of the conservative Tea Party movement, is weighing a 2016 run for the White House.
The citizenship provisions have long been a goal of Democrats in Congress as well as of Obama, who has said he will submit his own immigration reform proposal should he find sufficient fault with the work of Congress.
Prospects for immigration reform were boosted immediately following the November 6, 2012, presidential elections when Democrats held onto the White House and picked up seats in Congress.
Political analysts widely credited Hispanic Americans for some of the Democrats' success, delivering a wakeup call to Republicans who did not manage to even capture one-third of the Latino vote.
Nonetheless, plenty of Republicans will demand a tough review of the Senate bill, as well as a House bill that also is expected to be unveiled soon. Some Republicans are arguing for a piecemeal approach to immigration reform that Democrats have rejected.
(Additional reporting by Charles Abbott, Editing by Fred Barbash, Lisa Shumaker and Jackie Frank)