WASHINGTON -- "Toma," as he requested to be named, is an illegal immigrant in his early 50s, living in the northeastern United States. He speaks little English. He says he got a tourist visa five years ago and left his native city of Kutaisi, Georgia. He hasn't been back since.
"They have everything here,” he says. “They have jobs -- not like back home. I decided to stay and thought I could somehow get my papers eventually."
Many immigrants from Eastern Europe and former Soviet republics, Toma says, overstay their visas and find work in construction, like he did. He says he did so out of necessity, but has always been thankful for the chance.
"I have a family to feed. I have to do something. Because I am in America my family and my relatives aren't going hungry. I've helped a lot of people survive back home by sending money. I sent money for surgeries that they couldn't pay for. I owe it all to America. I love my country, but I respect this country too. This country is like a second mother," Toma said.
In less than a month since U.S. President Barack Obama was inaugurated for a second term, both the White House and Congressional leaders have reprioritized immigration reform, with the question of how to deal with illegals at the center of the debate. Now Toma senses that a "big chance" may be coming. Not only for him, but for the approximately 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States who could potentially find themselves on a path to citizenship in the not-so-distant future.
Audrey Singer, an expert on U.S. immigration policy at the Brookings Institution, says the time is "ripe" for the country's first major immigration reform effort since the mid-1980s.
"It seems like the stars are aligning and that this is best chance that we've seen in years. In particular, the signaling comes from people and places where there has been resistance before: Top Republican leaders are talking about legalization for people who are in the United States without status for the first time,” Singer says.
“Many businesses, labor, religious, and political leaders are voicing their concerns about not fixing our immigration and the harm that would do. I see this as a very ripe time."
The majority of illegal immigrants in the United States are from Latin America. The latest statistics from the Pew Research Hispanic Center estimate that nearly 60 percent are from Mexico.
Pew Senior Demographer Jeffrey Passel told RFE/RL that there are about 50,000 illegal immigrants in the United States from the countries of the former Soviet Union, a number he says has remained fairly steady for most of the last decade.
Path To Citizenship
In 1986, Congress voted to grant legal status to about 3 million illegal immigrants, hoping the move would stem the flow of people moving across the Mexican border. Instead, the flow increased. But today, citing in part the unfeasibility of mass deportations, many U.S. lawmakers say creating a path to citizenship for illegals is still the best way to proceed.
Many Republicans have warmed to the idea in light of the shifting demographics of the country. Latino voters emerged as a major force in the 2012 presidential election, throwing the vast majority of their support behind Obama, who was seen as more sympathetic to the immigrant cause.
In late January a bipartisan group of senators, including former Republican presidential candidate John McCain (Arizona), released a blueprint for immigration reform that includes eventual citizenship.
The blueprint, however, which is expected to be developed into a bill by next month, makes the “path to citizenship” provision contingent upon improved U.S. border security and enforcement measures. The linkage is meant to help the plan gain conservative support.
Obama's own plan contains no such linkage. He touted the proposal as a second-term priority during the State of the Union address on February 12.
"Real reform means establishing a responsible pathway to earned citizenship -- a path that includes passing a background check, paying taxes and a meaningful penalty, learning English, and going to the back of the line behind the folks trying to come here legally," Obama said.
The issue of "earned citizenship" will be fodder for contentious debate in the months to come.
The Senate held its first hearing on immigration reform on February 13, where partisan divisions began to emerge. Republicans accused the Obama administration of de-emphasizing border security and called attempts at legalization "amnesty."
The citizenship issue will face the stiffest challenge in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. In an interview with the Associated Press on February 13, House Speaker John Boehner (Republican-Ohio) wouldn't say whether he would support a bill that includes the citizenship plan. In a recent hearing, Bob Goodlatte (Republican-Virginia), the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, suggested there might be an option "between the extremes of mass deportation and a pathway to citizenship."
Still, experts like Singer predict that a legalization initiative is "likely."
"Working out the eligibility and the implementation of such a program is going to be something that is a stumbling block. But I do think, when you add up the interest in this by politicians and other leaders and the public support for this, that it's likely we will see something. It just is not clear right now what it will look like," Singer said.
Meanwhile, Toma says he is ready to pay taxes and go through the process of becoming a citizen. The opportunity, he says, would be "an inspiration" to him and to other illegal immigrants he knows have been waiting to come out of the shadows.
"I will pray for the president of this country if this happens," he said.