WASHINGTON — Republican and Democratic lawmakers were cautiously optimistic Sunday that a long-sought overhaul of the nation's immigration system that includes a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the country will clear Congress this year, the result of changes in the political landscape shown in November's election.

"We are trying to work our way through some very difficult issues," said Illinois' Sen. Richard Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate. "But, we are committed to a comprehensive approach to finally, in this country, have an immigration law we can live with. We have virtually been going maybe 25 years without a clear statement about immigration policy. That's unacceptable in this nation of immigrants."

Sen. Robert Menendez, who along with Durbin and Sen. John McCain, is part of the six-member, bipartisan Senate group working on a framework for immigration legislation to be announced this week, said current politics dictate that a pathway for citizenship must be included.

"Let's be very clear: having a pathway to earned legalization is an essential element. And I think that we are largely moving in that direction as an agreement," said Menendez, D-N.J.

But the package "will have the enhancement of the border security," he said, nodding to Republicans' priority to tighten borders to prevent future illegal immigration.

He also said the package would have to crack down on employers hiring undocumented workers.

Arizona Republican McCain has returned to the issue after having led a failed push to fix the nation's broken immigration system ahead of his 2008 bid for the White House.

McCain said: "What's changed is, honestly, is that there is a new, I think, appreciation on both sides of the aisle – including, maybe more importantly on the Republican side of the aisle, that we have to enact a comprehensive immigration reform bill."

Despite making little progress on immigration in his first term, President Barack Obama won more than 70 percent of the Latino vote, in part because of the conservative positions on immigration that Republican nominee Mitt Romney staked out during the GOP primary. Asians, who immigrated to the U.S. in higher numbers than Hispanics in 2010, also overwhelmingly backed Obama. Latino voters accounted for 10 percent of the electorate in November.

Obama is to press his case for immigration changes during a trip to Las Vegas Tuesday: a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants that includes paying fines and back taxes; increased border security; mandatory penalties for businesses that employ unauthorized immigrants; and improvements to the legal immigration system, including giving green cards to high-skilled workers and lifting caps on legal immigration for the immediate family members of U.S. citizens.

In an opinion piece published online Sunday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal, Sen. Marco Rubio, also a member of the bipartisan Senate group, laid out his proposal to address the issue. The Florida Republican, son of Cuban immigrants, wrote that "significant progress" on enforcing immigration laws must be certified before unauthorized immigrants now in the country are allowed to apply for residency and "get in the back of the line."

Rep. Paul Ryan, the 2012 Republican candidate for vice president, said he backs Rubio's proposal.

"Immigration is a good thing. We're here because of immigration. We need to make sure it works," Wisconsin's Ryan said.

If Republicans fail to act, they will pay the price in elections for generations, McCain warned.

"Well, I'll give you a little straight talk: Look at the last election... We are losing dramatically the Hispanic vote, which we think should be ours for a variety of reasons," McCain said.

McCain and Menendez spoke with ABC's "This Week," Durbin appeared on "Fox News Sunday" and Ryan was on NBC's "Meet the Press."

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Associated Press writer Philip Elliott contributed to this report.

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Follow Michele Salcedo on Twitter at . http://twitter.com/michelesalcedo

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  • The Naturalization Act of 1790

    The Naturalization Act of 1790 was our country's first set of laws dealing with citizenship. Applicants had to be "<a href="http://rs6.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llsl&fileName=001/llsl001.db&recNum=226 " target="_hplink">a free white person</a>" of "good moral character." This excluded indentured servants and slaves. Good moral character was substantiated by establishing residence for at least one year in the state from where he was applying, and at least two years of residence in the country. The Naturalization Act of 1795 would extend that requirement to five years, and is still standard today.

  • The Fourteenth Amendment, 1868

    A Reconstruction Amendment that was added to the U.S. Constitution following the Civil War, the Citizenship Clause of the 14th Amendment establishes for the first time that children born on U.S. soil would be conferred U.S. citizenship regardless of their parent's citizenship status, race, or place of birth. Last year, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) introduced the <a href="http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/hr140 " target="_hplink">Birthright Citizenship Act of 2011</a> to Congress, and challenged this. The bill would require that at least one parent be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident for a child to be granted citizenship. According to the <a href="http://www.opencongress.org/bill/112-h140/text " target="_hplink">bill's text</a>, the Birthright Citizenship Act of 2011 would amend the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, and "clarify those classes of individuals born in the United States who are nationals and citizens of the United States at birth." Prior to this, Rep. Nathan Deal (R-GA) <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/05/26/nathan-deal-georgia-lawma_n_207485.html " target="_hplink">introduced</a> a similar <a href="http://www.opencongress.org/bill/111-h1868/show" target="_hplink">bill</a> in 2009.

  • The Naturalization Act of 1870

    The Naturalization Act of 1870<a href="http://thepoliticsofimmigration.org/pages/chronology.htm " target="_hplink"> explicitly extended</a> naturalization laws to "aliens of African nativity and persons of African descent." This meant that for the first time, African-American children would be conferred citizenship upon birth. Asian immigrants and other people of color are excluded per the Naturalization Acts of 1790 and 1795.

  • The Page Act of 1875

    Named after Republican Representative Horace F. Page, this is the first U.S. federal immigration law to explicitly prohibit the immigration of a particular group: persons of Asian descent. Primarily meant to limit Chinese immigrant labor and prostitution, the Page Act prohibited the immigration of: (1) contracted labor from "China, Japan, or any Oriental country" that was not "free and voluntary," (2) Chinese prostitution and (3) criminals and women who would engage in prostitution. Ultimately, the <a href="http://www.uchastings.edu/racism-race/pageact.html " target="_hplink">Page Act</a> severely <a href="http://immigration-online.org/228-page-act-united-states-1875.html " target="_hplink">restricted</a> the immigration of Asian women. Only 136 of the the nearly 40,000 Chinese immigrants who arrived in the months before the bill's enforcement were women. And, it would pave the way for the Chinese Exclusion Act. In this picture, Michael Lin, chair of the 1882 Project, a coalition of rights groups seeking a statement of regret over that year's Chinese Exclusion Act, speaks on May 26, 2011 in Washington, DC, at the US House of Representatives in front of a reproduction of a 19th-century sign that aimed at rousing up sentiment against Chinese Americans. Lawmakers introduced a bill that would offer an official statement of regret for the act, which banned further immigration of Chinese to the United States and ended citizenship rights for ethnic Chinese. (AFP PHOTO/SHAUN TANDON).

  • The Chinese Exclusion Act, 1882

    Signed by President Chester A. Arthur, the <a href="http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/resources/archives/seven/chinxact.htm " target="_hplink">Chinese Exclusion Act</a> was the first federal immigration law to prohibit immigration on the basis of race. The bill barred all Chinese laborers, skilled and unskilled, from immigrating to the U.S. for ten years. It was made permanent by 1903, and was not lifted until the 1943 Magnuson Act. The 1898 Supreme Court <a href="http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu/immigration/exclusion.html " target="_hplink">decision</a> in <em>United States v. Wong Kim Ark</em> finally extended naturalization laws to persons of Chinese descent by ruling that anyone born in the United States was indeed a U.S. citizen. This editorial cartoon from 1882 shows a Chinese man being excluded from entry to the "Golden Gate of Liberty." The sign next to the iron door reads, "Notice--Communist, Nihilist, Socialist, Fenian & Hoodlum welcome. But no admittance to Chinamen." At the bottom, the caption reads, "THE ONLY ONE BARRED OUT. Enlightened American Statesman--'We must draw the line <em>somewhere</em>, you know.'" (Image Source: Frank Leslie's illustrated newspaper, vol. 54 (1882 April 1), p. 96. [Public domain], via <a href="http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_only_one_barred_out_cph.3b48680.jpg" target="_hplink">Wikimedia Commons</a>).

  • The Naturalization Act of 1906

    The Naturalization Act of 1906 further <a href="http://www.understandingrace.org/history/gov/eastern_southern_immigration.html" target="_hplink">defined</a> the naturalization process: the ability to speak English was made a <a href="http://www.enotes.com/topic/Naturalization_Act_of_1906" target="_hplink">requisite</a> for immigrants to adjust their status.

  • The Immigration Act of 1924

    U.S. President Coolidge signed this U.S. federal <a href="http://history.state.gov/milestones/1921-1936/ImmigrationAct " target="_hplink">bill</a> into law. It capped the number of immigrants who could be admitted entry to the U.S. and barred immigration of persons who were not eligible for naturalization. And, as the Naturalization Act of 1790 required, an immigrant had to be white in order to naturalize. The quotas varied by country. Image Source: Flickr Creative Commons, <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/nycmarines/6306315902/" target="_hplink">NYCMarines</a>.

  • The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (The McCarran-Walter Act)

    The <a href="https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&q=cache:zwaVG82lZisJ:www-rohan.sdsu.edu/dept/polsciwb/brianl/docs/1952McCarranWaltersAct.pdf+&hl=en&gl=us&pid=bl&srcid=ADGEESjEwx76FIBTixZAfyncZz-1CSuSeciv5qB6vvWTrUfW58XRpXq8zkpnI57XSuuG5Bu-WSySGbEhxYvZxP7y6qDQuOsDhgDa6qUqUaJ8F4imTzKJsVtppHc_-eew2dK6vGhoIUZs&sig=AHIEtbTNQ5GFiNMVS-xyThq8VVSj_gG9KA " target="_hplink">McCarran-Walter Act</a> kept up the controversial Immigration Act of 1924, but <a href="http://history.state.gov/milestones/1945-1952/ImmigrationAct" target="_hplink">formally</a> ended Asian exclusion.

  • Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965

    When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, it <a href="http://library.uwb.edu/guides/USimmigration/1965_immigration_and_nationality_act.html" target="_hplink">abolished</a> the quota system that favored immigration from Europe and limited immigration from Asia and South America.

  • Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996

    The 1996 <a href="http://www.uscis.gov/ilink/docView/PUBLAW/HTML/PUBLAW/0-0-0-10948.html " target="_hplink">Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act</a> (IIRIRA) is a piece of legislation that <a href="http://library.uwb.edu/guides/usimmigration/1996_illegal_immigration_reform_and_immigrant_responsibility_act.html " target="_hplink">defined</a> an array of issues to do with legal and illegal immigration -- from outlining how border patrol agents should administer visa processing, to the minutiae of how to handle deportation proceedings -- IIRIRA established enforcement and patrolling practices.