By Stephen Dinan and Seth McLaughli
When lawmakers announce a broad immigration bill this week, they hope to take advantage of a marked shift in the way Americans see illegal immigration, with more voters willing to embrace legalization as a solution.
The bill's sponsors a group of eight senators who have been negotiating the details for months said late Monday that they were postponing the rollout of the bill until Wednesday out of respect for victims of the bombings in Boston.
When the debate does begin in earnest, backers will find a more favorable landscape than they did just a few years ago, when surveys showed that less than half of Americans thought illegal immigrants should be allowed to stay and gain citizenship. Now, support nears 70 percent in some surveys.
"The main change has been among Republicans, who have come to accept that driving 11 million people out of the country is unrealistic, and that they want to deal with it in a way that makes sure we don't have 11 million more in a decade," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, an advocacy group that sponsors polls.
Lawmakers will try to address both sides of that equation in their bill, which four Democratic senators and four Republican senators have been negotiating for months.
They were slated to introduce the legislation Tuesday, but put it off a day after the bombing at the Boston Marathon on Monday. Still, details are leaking out.
The Washington Times reported Monday that the legislation will create a points-based system for determining who gets an immigrant visa in the future, and is likely to substantially boost legal immigration numbers overall.
Other outlets have reported on the legalization program, which would grant illegal immigrants who arrived before 2012 an immediate legal status and work right, but would delay a path to citizenship for years.
On Monday, the White House said Mr. Obama could accept a plan that would take 10 to 13 years for illegal immigrants to earn citizenship. White House press secretary Jay Carney said that is "consistent" with the president's priorities.
Still, Mr. Carney cautioned that the White House would withhold support for any legislation until seeing the final language.
Mr. Obama benefited from a surge of support from Hispanic voters last year, and analysts credited his immigration stance for much of that. Exit polling showed that Mr. Obama won 71 percent support from Hispanics, compared with 27 percent for Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who promised a crackdown on illegal immigration.
Since Mr. Romney's election loss, many Republican leaders have argued that the party needs to take a softer line on illegal immigration and polling suggests rank-and-file Republicans have shifted that direction.
Public support will be critical. Many lawmakers who were part of the failed effort to pass a bill in 2007 say the legislation became doomed when irate voters shut down the Senate switchboard to complain about proposed legalization.
Backers say this time is different.
"All along, I have always said that Americans will be common-sense, practical and balanced towards legal immigration and the 11 million who are here, provided they are convinced there won't be future flows of illegal immigration," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat and one of the eight negotiators. "As you'll see tomorrow, we've put together a proposal that pretty much does that."
Polling slated to be released Tuesday, sponsored by the Campaign for an Accountable, Moral, and Balanced Immigration Overhaul, found that about two-thirds of voters support a path to citizenship, though Democrats are significantly more enthusiastic than Republicans.
Three-quarters of voters, though, want immigrants who have committed crimes to be deported though the poll also found voters willing to let those immigrants go before a judge to determine whether the crimes were serious enough to warrant expulsion.
About 88 percent support requiring businesses to check their workers through an electronic verification system to make sure they are in the country legally another key component of the deal taking shape in Congress.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports a crackdown on immigration, said support for legalization in principle could turn quickly into opposition when voters look at specifics in the bill.
"Is there significant support for letting illegal immigrants stay? Yeah, there is. In fact, there was six or seven years ago," Mr. Krikorian said. "But the basic issue is, will the law be enforced in other words, will this be the last group that gets amnesty? That question is seldom asked."
The center has conducted its own polling posing two options: illegal immigrants staying in the U.S. or going home. The poll found 52 percent of those surveyed wanted illegal immigrants to return to their home countries, while 33 percent said they should be given legal status.
Wording makes a lot of difference in results. MORE