Boston — WASHINGTON — Amid the initial elation from immigration advocates over a new proposal to overhaul the nation's border-control laws was a sense of unease over the 844-page bill's core provision: a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally.
Proponents of immigration reform have pushed for decades to allow undocumented immigrants to become legal residents and, ultimately, citizens. But advocates expressed concern Wednesday that the path created by an eight-member bipartisan Senate group is too onerous, expensive and uncertain.
The fear, the advocates said, is that hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States will never have the chance to remain in the country legally.
Provisions in the bill could make it nearly impossible for "many immigrants to make it to the finish line and become citizens," said Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center.
The challenge facing advocates is to push lawmakers to find ways to amend the legislation to make the path to citizenship easier without upsetting the delicate political balance and potentially killing the deal.
President Obama has said he expects a "clear path" to citizenship. Administration officials said they will reserve judgement on the details until they have carefully examined the legislation.
Public debate over the proposal is expected to focus heavily on the citizenship component — long a non-starter among conservative Republicans, many of whom who remain fiercely opposed to granting what they call "amnesty" to the undocumented population.
GOP supporters of the immigration bill, including Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., say the proposal allows a path to legal status and citizenship only after rigorous new provisions are in place to enforce control of the border.
But Rubio is already taking heat from conservatives. On Tuesday, several dozen tea party activists demonstrated at some of the senator's Florida offices, and conservative websites on Wednesday charged that the bill would distribute free "amnesty" cell phones to some immigrants near the border.