The U.S. Senate moved to consider multiple immigration proposals Wednesday, from sweeping reforms backed by President Donald Trump that would reshape America's acceptance of newcomers to measures focused on helping undocumented immigrants brought to America as children.
In a White House statement, Trump urged lawmakers to enact "responsible and commonsense immigration reform that delivers for the American people."
Trump's call reflected a broadened White House agenda on immigration compared with that of nearly six months ago, when the president rescinded an Obama administration policy benefiting young immigrants and gave Congress six months to craft a permanent legislative replacement.
In recent weeks, Trump has proposed a path to eventual citizenship for up to 1.8 million undocumented youths, major investments in U.S. border security, limiting family-based immigration and prioritizing newcomers with advanced work skills.
Trump's plan is encapsulated in legislation Senate Republicans brought to the floor during a week of deliberations devoted entirely to immigration issues.
Major changes urged
Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, echoed the president's call and argued for major changes to federal immigration law.
"Common sense dictates that we cannot simply treat one symptom of our broken immigration policy. We must address the underlying problems as well. That means fixing broken parts of our legal immigration system," McConnell said. "We must also ensure the safety of the American people."
Democrats argued that sweeping alterations of America's immigration system be considered separately from legislation addressing the plight of beneficiaries of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), sometimes referred to as Dreamers.
"We will not stand by and allow Dreamers to be held hostage, political hostage, to the administration's entire immigration agenda," Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin said.
DACA granted undocumented youths temporary permission to work and study in the United States. Hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients will be at risk of deportation beginning March 5, the date Trump set for the program to expire.
Democrats have proposed pairing a DACA fix with limited border security enhancements palatable to many senators of both political parties, and they have argued vigorously against Trump's broader immigration agenda.
"We're here to address a crisis that President Trump started last September when he ended DACA," Democrat Robert Menendez of New Jersey said. He added that many elements of current immigration law, such as promoting family reunification, should be preserved.
"There is nothing more commonsense than uniting brothers and sisters and sons and daughters [from other countries]," Menendez said. "They are bound by blood and held together by love."
Republicans accused Democrats of misrepresenting the substance and intent of the president's proposals, arguing that Trump's plan to fix DACA was more generous to young immigrants than anything former President Barack Obama ever achieved.
North Carolina Republican Senator Thom Tillis mocked any characterization of the White House plan as "hardline."
"The 'hardline' plan is to have nearly three times as many people with a path to [U.S.] citizenship. Citizenship. Not a piece of paper," Tillis said. "The last time we did any major immigration bill, I was 5 years old. I think it's about time to look at how the world has changed and maybe open your eyes to a better way that benefits the person trying to come to this country but benefits our country as a result of their entry."
McConnell has stated his intention to conclude Senate debate on immigration by week's end. Anything the Senate passes would have to be approved by the House of Representatives and be signed by Trump to become law.
VOA's Wayne Lee contributed to this report.