UPDATE 1-Activists cautiously welcome US immigration reform push

Reuters Middle East

* Hispanic activists say drive is "heavy on enforcement"

* Republicans split on "amnesty," but see room for

compromise

(Update with comment from Arizona Governor Jan Brewer)

PHOENIX, Jan 28 (Reuters) - Proposed changes to U.S.

immigration law unveiled on Monday could be the answer to the

prayers of illegal immigrants like Maria Duran, but she is

waiting to see the details.

A bipartisan group of Republican and Democrat senators

announced "tough but fair" steps that they hoped could be passed

by Congress this year to give 11 million illegal immigrants a

chance to eventually become American citizens.

Activists like Duran, who sat up all night with others at a

prayer vigil for immigration reform outside the capitol building

in Phoenix, Arizona, were pleased but cautious.

"It's the best moment for immigration reform in years, but

we need to see more details," said the 50-year-old homemaker,

who left Mexico to live in the United States 28 years ago, but

still does not have legal status.

The proposed steps are part of the first concerted drive for

comprehensive immigration reform since a similar overhaul was

defeated by Republicans in Congress in 2007.

It would offer probationary legal status to immigrants who

register with the government and pay a fine and any back taxes.

They will also have to learn English, continue to pay taxes

and demonstrate a work history in the United States to apply for

legal permanent residency.

However, many of the details still need to be worked out and

the proposal also seeks to ensure as a first step that the

porous border with Mexico is secure and that foreigners in the

United States temporarily return home when their visas expire.

Some activists were encouraged by the level of bipartisan

support from the four Democrat and four Republican senators who

put forward the proposal. They include Charles Schumer, a New

York Democrat, and John McCain, a veteran Arizona Republican.

But they also worried that the proposal made tightening

enforcement - including adding agents and surveillance systems

to the southwestern border - a precondition for all other

measures in the package.

"It's really heavy on enforcement. That has always been one

of the wedge issues in the community for activists," said Gaby

Pacheco, a campaigner in Florida who was brought to the United

States from Ecuador at the age of eight.

While the government's own figures showed arrests on the

southwest border at a 40-year low in 2011 and deportations at a

record high, Pacheco said, "I don't think Republicans are ever

going to be satisfied with enforcement measures."

'AMNESTY' OR 'EARNESTY'?

For Juana Garcia, a 27-year-old illegal immigrant from

Mexico working in agriculture, reform could ease the fear she

and her husband have of deportation and being separated from

their five children - all of whom were born in the United States

and therefore have citizenship.

The pair are seasonal workers who drive to Wisconsin to work

the crops there before returning to Florida's strawberry fields

and orange groves - all the while worried that they will be

pulled over for a traffic stop and detained.

Garcia, speaking in Spanish, said she has no problem with

provisions requiring immigrants to pay fines and back taxes

before getting a green card. But she said that while immigrants

want to learn English, they may need help finding time or child

care to attend classes after laboring in the fields all day.

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, a Republican whose support for

her state's tough crackdown on illegal immigrants in 2010 made

her a major White House antagonist on the issue, gave the

proposal a cautious welcome.

"I am pleased that there is expressed recognition of what we

have been saying in Arizona: immigration reform will not succeed

unless and until we have achieved effective border security,"

Brewer said in a statement.

However, it met with a decidedly mixed response from other

Republican leaders nationally, who said that while they

supported some kind of immigration overhaul, they were unclear

if this was the right one.

"My understanding is it's basically just saying that we're

going to give everybody amnesty," said Steve Munisteri, chairman

of the Republican Party of Texas.

"But we do need immigration reform that recognizes the fact

that we have a lot of people already here, that are necessary to

be here, that are hard-working, law-abiding people that would

add to the country," he added. "We should figure out a way for

those people to have a way to stay."

Some others in the party, which lost Hispanic votes in the

November election that gave President Barack Obama a second

term, saw support for the measure as way of building bridges to

Latinos, who are the country's fastest-growing ethnic group.

"There's no question about it. We've got to deliver a better

message to Hispanics and immigrants ... a segment of people we

lost badly," said Chad Connelly, chairman of the South Carolina

Republican Party, adding that legislation could find support if

it involved better border security and assimilation measures.

"I've heard some people say this is more like 'earnesty'

than 'amnesty. 'Earnesty,' as in earning their way to

citizenship," he added.

(Additional reporting by Ian Simpson in Washington, David Adams

in Miami, Saundra Amrhein in Tampa, Corrie McLaggan in Austin,

Harriet McLeod in Charleston Virginia and Verna Gates in

Birmingham, Alabama; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and David

Brunnstrom)

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