Reporting from Los Angeles and Chicago — Raising the curtain on a new round of debate over immigration reform, a group of Democratic congressional lawmakers introduced a comprehensive bill Tuesday that, among other provisions, would offer a path to legalization for the country's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.
The bill, championed by Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.), was decidedly more pro-immigrant than the bipartisan legislation House lawmakers debated two years ago. And the latest version drew immediate fire from the left as well as the right. Groups opposed to legalization derided it as a form of amnesty, and more-liberal factions complained that it relied too heavily on enforcement.
In Los Angeles, immigration activists hailed the measure at a news conference before heading to local lawmakers' offices -- aboard a yellow school bus festooned with banners -- to urge their support.
"This is a big day for us," said Jorge-Mario Cabrera of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. "Our community has been awaiting this bill for a long time."
Cabrera called Gutierrez's bill the most generous in more than two decades, citing provisions that would allow migrants to legalize their status without returning to their home countries, prohibit separation of families, offer more visas for workers and relatives, and eliminate local enforcement of federal immigration law.
The bill also calls for beefing up border security and overhauling the federal detention system for jailed immigrants to provide for better medical treatment and other services.
But Ted Hilton, an anti-illegal-immigration activist in San Diego, said that with so many Americans out of work, efforts to legalize millions of immigrants would face a certain backlash.
"When the last American comes off of unemployment, then let's have a conversation about whether we need additional immigrants," Hilton said, adding that he hoped to qualify a California ballot initiative next year to deny several public services to illegal immigrants.
In Washington, Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) -- who has been Gutierrez's partner in backing previous immigration bills -- issued a statement Tuesday saying he was "disappointed" by the latest legislation. "In order for immigration reform to be effective, it needs to be comprehensive," he said. "Any bill without a temporary worker program is simply not comprehensive."
Gutierrez, one of 87 House Democrats sponsoring the 700-page bill, said it was based on months of discussions with community organizations, unions and other groups around the country in hopes of gaining enough momentum to get reforms passed.
"Now, there's a bill with a following," Gutierrez said.
However, any serious consideration seems months away.
A spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) said that although Pelosi supported the bill, she wanted the Senate to act first on the issue.
President Obama has said that he anticipated taking up the immigration issue after the healthcare debate is over and Congress finishes work on energy reforms and regulating financial markets -- potentially pushing the debate close to the midterm election in November.