WASHINGTON (AP) — After years of gridlock, this may be the moment when Congress at last does something about the millions of immigrants living illegally in the U.S.
All eyes are on a more than 1,000-page Senate proposal with the you-said-a-mouthful title of the "Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013." The bill cleared its first procedural hurdles in the Senate on Thursday, and President Barack Obama hopes to have a bill on his desk by the fall.
What's in the bill? Is there a Plan B? And who are all these immigrants, once you get past the big round numbers?
A big dose of facts, figures and other information to help understand the current debate:
Major problems with U.S. immigration have been around for decades.
President George W. Bush tried to change the system and failed. Obama promised to overhaul it in his first term, but never did.
In Obama's second term, he's making immigration a priority, and Republicans also appear ready to deal.
Why the new commitment?
Obama won 71 percent of Hispanic voters in his 2012 re-election campaign, and he owes them. Last year's election also sent a loud message to Republicans that they can't ignore this pivotal voting bloc.
It's been the kind of breathtaking turnaround you rarely see in politics. Plus, there's growing pressure from business leaders, who want to make it easier for the U.S. to attract highly educated immigrants and to legally bring in more lower-skilled workers such as farm laborers.
WHAT'S THE PROBLEM?
Talk about "comprehensive immigration reform" generally centers on four main questions:
—What to do about the 11 million-plus immigrants who live in the U.S. without legal permission.
—How to tighten border security.
—How to keep businesses from employing people who are in the U.S. illegally.
—How to improve the legal immigration system, now so convoluted that the adjective "Byzantine" pops up all too frequently.
WHAT'S THE GANG OF EIGHT?
A group of four Democrats and four Republicans in the Senate that crafted a bill to address all four questions. In a nutshell, this proposal would tighten border controls, allow more high- and low-skilled workers to legally immigrate, require employers to verify their workers have legal status, and create an opportunity for those who are in the U.S. illegally to eventually become citizens.
IS THERE A PLAN B?
And C and D.
Obama has his own backup plan in case congressional talks fail, but he's given his support to the Senate bill as a worthy compromise.
In the House, Republican Rep. Bob Goodlatte, the head of the House Judiciary Committee, says his committee will tackle the main immigration issues one by one, instead of starting with a single sweeping bill.
Separately, there's a bipartisan House group working on legislation.
Obama says he will keep an open mind about the various proposals, but the final deal has to address all the big issues.
COMING TO AMERICA
A record 40.4 million immigrants live in the U.S., representing 13 percent of the population. More than 18 million are naturalized citizens, 11 million are legal permanent or temporary residents, and more than 11 million are in the country without legal permission, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a private research organization.
Those in the U.S. illegally made up about 3.7 percent of the U.S. population in 2010. While overall immigration has steadily grown, the number of immigrants in the U.S. illegally peaked at 12 million in 2007.
Twenty-nine percent of the foreign-born in the U.S., or about 11.7 million people, came from Mexico. About 25 percent came from South and East Asia, 9 percent from the Caribbean, 8 percent from Central America, 7 percent South America, 4 percent the Middle East and the rest from elsewhere.
The figures are more lopsided for immigrants living here illegally: An estimated 58 percent are from Mexico. The next closest figure is 6 percent from El Salvador, says the government.
California has the largest share of the U.S. immigrant population, 27 percent, followed by New York, New Jersey, Florida, Nevada, Hawaii and Texas, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a private group focused on global immigration issues.
California has the largest share of immigrants in the U.S. illegally, at 25 percent, followed by Texas with 16 percent. Florida and New York each have 6 percent, and Georgia has 5 percent, according to the Homeland Security Department.
Here's one way to think about the ways immigrants arrive in the U.S: Some come in the front door, others the side door and still others the back door, as laid out in a report from the private Population Reference Bureau.
—Arriving through the front door: people legally sponsored by their families or employers. Also refugees and asylum-seekers, and immigrants who win visas in an annual "diversity" lottery.
—Side door: legal temporary arrivals, including those who get visas to visit, work or study. There are dozens of types of nonimmigrant visas, available to people ranging from business visitors to foreign athletes and entertainers. Visitors from dozens of countries don't even need visas.
—Back door: Somewhat more than half of those in the U.S. illegally have come in the back door, evading border controls, Pew estimates. The rest legally entered, but didn't leave when they were supposed to or otherwise violated terms of their visas.
IS IT A CRIME?
Simply being in the United States in violation of immigration laws isn't, by itself, a crime; it's a civil violation.
Entering the country without permission is a misdemeanor criminal offense. Re-entering the country without authorization after being formally removed can be felony.
Pew estimates that fewer than half of immigrants who lack legal permission to live in the U.S. didn't enter the country illegally. They overstayed their visas, worked without authorization, dropped out of school or otherwise violated the conditions of their visas.
WHAT'S IN A NAME?
There are varying and strong opinions about how best to refer to the 11 million-plus people who are in the U.S. without legal permission.
Illegal immigrants? Undocumented workers? Unauthorized population? Illegal aliens?
The last has generally fallen out of favor. Some immigrant advocates are pressing a "Drop the I-Word" campaign, arguing that it is dehumanizing to refer to people as "illegal."
"Undocumented worker" often isn't accurate because many aren't workers, and some have documents from other countries. Homeland Security reports refer to "unauthorized immigrants," but the agency also reports statistics on "aliens apprehended."
—Legal permanent residents (LPRs): people who have permission to live in the U.S. permanently but aren't citizens. They're also known as "green card" holders. Most of them can apply for citizenship within five years of getting green cards. In 2011, 1.06 million people got the cards.
—Refugees and "asylees": people who come to the U.S. to avoid persecution in their home countries. What's the difference between the two terms? Refugees are people who apply for protective status before they get to the U.S. Those referred to by Homeland Security as "asylees" are people who apply upon arrival in the U.S. or later.
—Naturalization: The process by which immigrants become U.S. citizens.
Is there an actual green card? Indeed there is.
It's the Permanent Resident Card issued to people who are authorized to live and work in the U.S. on a permanent basis. In 2010, the government redesigned them to add new security features — and make them green again.
The cards had been a variety of colors over the years. New green cards are good for 10 years for lawful permanent residents and two years for conditional residents.
PATH TO CITIZENSHIP
There's a lot of talk about creating a "path to citizenship" for immigrants who are in the U.S. without legal status.
But there's vigorous debate over what conditions these immigrants should have to satisfy to get citizenship — among them are paying taxes, fines and fees, and passing background checks.
Some legislators want to set additional conditions, such as improvements in border security and in tracking whether legal immigrants leave the country when required. Others want to limit immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally to some sort of legal status that stops short of citizenship.
But more than 60 percent of Americans think those who are here illegally should have a way to become citizens, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll conducted in April.
The Senate bill would allow those in the country illegally to obtain "registered provisional immigrant" status six months after the bill was enacted if they met certain conditions.
Additional border security improvements would have to go into place before anyone obtained green cards or citizenship.
It would take immigrants living here illegally at least 13 years to get all the way to citizenship. They'd have to pay taxes, fees and $2,000 in fines. No one who entered the country after Dec. 31, 2011, or had a felony conviction or more than three misdemeanors would be eligible.
Nothing stirs up a hornet's nest like talk of amnesty for immigrants who are in the country illegally, although there's a lot of disagreement over how to define the term.
A 2007 effort to overhaul the immigration system, led by Bush, failed in part because Republicans were dismayed that it included a process to give otherwise law-abiding immigrants who were in the country illegally a chance to become citizens. Critics complained that would be offering amnesty.
All sides know it's not practical to talk about sending 11 million-plus people back to their countries of origin. So one big challenge this time is finding an acceptable way to resolve the status of those who are in the country illegally.
Backers of the Senate bill stress that those who are in the country illegally would have a longer and more difficult path to citizenship under their plan than would immigrants who followed all the rules.
GETTING A REPRIEVE
While the larger immigration debate goes on, the government already is offering as many as 1.76 million immigrants who are in the country illegally a way to avoid deportation, at least for now.
Obama announced a program in June that puts off deportation for many people brought here as children. Applicants for the reprieve must have arrived before they turned 16, be younger than 31 now, be high school graduates or in school, or have served in the military. They can't have a serious criminal record or pose a threat to public safety or national security.
Applications for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program are averaging more than 3,000 a day. By the end of April, more than 515,000 people had applied and more than 290,000 had been approved, with most of the rest still under consideration.
Applications have come from all 50 states, with the largest number coming from California and Texas. Nearly 75 percent of the applicants are originally from Mexico.