* Hispanic activists say drive is "heavy on enforcement"
* Republicans split on "amnesty," but see room for
PHOENIX, Jan 28 (Reuters) - Illegal immigrant Maria Duran
sat up all night outside the Arizona state capitol and prayed
for an immigration overhaul before welcoming news Monday of a
proposal that could give her legal status but left her wanting
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.
"It's the best moment for immigration reform in years, but
we need to see more details," said Duran, 50, a homemaker who
left Mexico 28 years ago, as she huddled with activists urging
reform outside the capitol in Phoenix.
The plan, the first concerted drive for comprehensive reform
since a similar overhaul was defeated by Republicans in Congress
in 2007, 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.
But the proposal - with plenty of details still to be worked
out - also seeks to ensure as a first step that the porous
border with Mexico is secure and that foreigners temporarily in
the United States 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
proposed the present measure, including 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 additional
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 age 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 undocumented agricultural
worker from Mexico, immigration reform could ease the fear she
and her husband have of deportation and being separated from
their five children - all of whom are U.S.-born citizens.
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.
The immigration reform proposal met with a decidedly mixed
response from 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, the
Republican Party of Texas Chairman.
"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 demographic.
"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, the South Carolina Republican
Party Chairman, 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 Doina