NOGALES, Ariz. — A group of influential U.S. senators shaping and negotiating details of an immigration reform package vowed Wednesday to make the legislation public when Congress reconvenes next month as negotiations reopened between union workers and business groups over visas for low-skilled workers.
The visa talks were left in limbo Friday as Congress went into recess, but the senators said both sides had signaled they were open to compromise and were finalizing details Wednesday.
The reassurances came after the four senators — Republicans John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona and Democrats Chuck Schumer of New York and Michael Bennet of Colorado — toured the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona to get a firsthand look at security issues affecting the region. They are all members of the so-called Gang of Eight — a bipartisan group that has spent recent weeks trying to craft proposed immigration legislation.
"You can read and you can study and you can talk but until you see things it doesn't change reality," Schumer said. "I'll be able to explain it to my colleagues. Many of my colleagues say, 'Why do we need to do anything more on the border?' and we do."
The trip came as the lawmakers wrap up a bill designed to secure the border and put 11 million illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship.
President Barack Obama has urged Congress to pass immigration reform this year, and border security is critical to McCain and other Republicans who contend that some areas along the border are far from secure.
The senators toured the border Wednesday by ground and air, reviewing manned and unmanned drones and different types of fences. They also watched as vehicles going and coming into Mexico were scrutinized by border agents at the checkpoint in Nogales, Arizona.
"In so many ways, whatever your views are on immigration, Arizona is ground zero," Schumer said. "What I learned today is we have adequate manpower, but not adequate technology."
With top Republicans and Democrats focused on the issue, immigration reform faces its best odds in years. The proposed legislation will likely put illegal immigrants on a 13-year path to citizenship and would install new criteria for border security, allow more high- and low-skilled workers to come to the U.S. and hold businesses to tougher standards on verifying their workers are in the country legally.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO, negotiating through the Gang of Eight senators, had reached significant agreement Friday on a new visa program to bring up to 200,000 lower-skilled workers a year to the country, but talks were temporarily put on pause after the groups did not reach consensus on how much the workers would be paid.
Flake said both sides were showing new signs of flexibility and multiple phone calls were being exchanged on the issue Wednesday.
The bill is expected to be lengthy and cover numerous issues, including limiting family-based immigration to put a greater emphasis on skills and employment ties instead. McCain and Schumer promised that it would pay for itself, while cautioning that their proposed border security package will be costly.
"Nobody is going to be totally happy with this legislation, no one will be because we have to make compromises," McCain said.
Bennet said the Gang of Eight has agreed to place border security before a path to citizenship, but no one supports double-sided fences along the length of the U.S.-Mexico border. Some lawmakers in Arizona want more border fences.
"There is not one simple solution to the issue of border security," Bennet said. "This isn't as simple as someone on the East Coast saying 'We need a fence everywhere or we don't.'"
The senators stressed only comprehensive immigration reform, not piecemeal solutions, had any hope of passing both chambers of Congress.
"We are not going to slice it up," McCain said.
The legislation was initially promised in March. Immigration proponents have said the group needs to introduce legislation soon, while some Republican lawmakers complain the process has moved too quickly.
If passed, the legislation could usher in the most sweeping changes in immigration law in nearly 30 years.
Cristina Silva can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/cristymsilva