California immigration advocate Danny Diaz was ecstatic Monday after a bipartisan group of senators announced that it was ready to move forward on a sweeping overhaul of immigration laws.

On the other side of the debate, Ira Mehlman of an anti-illegal immigration group said the country was being "held hostage to amnesty for illegal aliens."

Across the Southland, there were divergent views as immigration reform, including a proposed a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants already in this country, returned to the spotlight.

Although immigration reform is nothing new in the national debate and has stalled repeatedly in recent years, some observers said the time may finally be right to allow undocumented immigrants a reasonable way to change their status.

A man waves a flag during a U.S. Citizenship Oath-Taking Ceremony on Jan. 23 in Los Angeles. Close to 5,000 candidates became new U.S. citizens during two
A man waves a flag during a U.S. Citizenship Oath-Taking Ceremony on Jan. 23 in Los Angeles. Close to 5,000 candidates became new U.S. citizens during two ceremonies Wednesday at the L.A. Convention Center. (Andy Holzman/Los Angeles Daily News)

"I am extremely hopeful," said Diaz, director of the League of United Latin American Citizens in California, the largest Latino civil rights non-profit organization in the United States.

Citing the changing political climate and the emergence of Latinos as a political force, Diaz said he is as optimistic as he has ever been.

"Eleven million people will be able to come out of the shadows and be a part of the American tapestry, the beautiful American tapestry," Diaz said.

While the deal that was announced by Republican and Democratic senators also covers border security, non-citizen or "guest" workers and employer verification of immigration status, it is the always contentious amnesty and citizenship question that matters to those on both sides of the debate.

"We thank this bipartisan group of Republicans and Democrats for understanding that a road map to citizenship is essential to any immigration reform plan," said Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers.

Diaz agreed that with any offer of reform, "you have to include a path to citizenship."

And he added "it must be dignified."

"We're willing to do whatever is needed," he said, "but it has to be responsible and just."

Groups opposed to widespread amnesty such as the Federation of American Immigration Reform and Numbers USA were also rallying their members, urging them to call elected officials and protest the new immigration plan.

Mehlman, a spokesman for FAIR, said the parts of the proposal that his group supports, such as border security and electronic employer verification, are "nothing new and not enforced" and may be decades away from being realized.

Meanwhile, he added, "The people who broke the laws by coming here illegally get benefits from Day 1."

In an e-mail plea, Numbers USA wrote, "The only force strong enough to slow down the amnesty juggernaut is the voice of the American people.

Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., right, and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., left, join a bipartisan group of leading senators announce that they have reached
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., right, and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., left, join a bipartisan group of leading senators announce that they have reached agreement on the principles of sweeping legislation to rewrite the nation's immigration laws, during a news conference Monday at the Capitol in Washington. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo)

At the press conference announcing the bipartisan principles, senators on both sides went at lengths to say citizenship was not a sure thing and would have to be earned.

"It will take time and determination," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., "but (immigrants) wouldn't be here if they weren't determined."

The senators said the road to amnesty would be long and difficult for those here illegally, and they would have to "go to the back of the line" behind those who have sought citizenship through legal means.

However, Sen. Charles Schurmer, D-N.Y., did say it was important to note that as soon as legislation is passed, the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the country would have "the legal right to stay here and work and no longer be harassed."

According to the bipartisan framework released Monday, there are four goals:

Creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already here, contingent upon securing the border through increased use of drones and other technology, and better tracking of people here on visas.

Reforming the legal immigration system, including awarding green cards to immigrants who obtain advanced degrees in science, math, technology or engineering from an American university.

Creating an effective employment verification system to ensure that employers do not hire undocumented immigrants in the future, including requiring prospective workers to verify legal status and identity through a non-forgeable electronic system.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., right, and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., left, join a bipartisan group of leading senators to announce that they have reached
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., right, and Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., left, join a bipartisan group of leading senators to announce that they have reached agreement on the principles of sweeping legislation to rewrite the nation's immigration laws, during a news conference Monday at the Capitol in Washington. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo)

Allowing more low-skill workers into the country and allowing employers to hire immigrants if they can demonstrate they couldn't recruit a U.S. citizen; and establishing an agricultural worker program.

Although Democrats and Republicans have both courted the Latino community in seeking reform, former state Assemblyman and longtime immigration attorney Mike Eng said the reform isn't just a Latino issue.

"Immigration from Asia now exceeds immigration from Latin America," Eng said. "At least one-third of the 'Dreamers' are from the Asian community."

According to a study by the Pew Research Center, nearly 430,000 Asians - or 36 percent of all new immigrants, legal and illegal - moved to the United States in 2010, compared with 370,000 Hispanics, or 31 percent of all new arrivals.

"In the Asian community, about 50 percent of the undocumented have applied for legal status, but they are caught in the legal system," Eng said. "The message has been, why do it the legal way when you are not going to get anywhere."

Some are taking a wait-and-see approach. They remember 2007 when late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and current supporter of the new effort Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., brought forth a failed proposal for immigration reform.

"The proposal today is similar to what was unveiled in 2006 and 2007. It starts on a pretty solid basis," said Karthick Ramakrishnan, a UC Riverside political scientist who studies immigration. "The big question is what happens in the House of Representatives, because it is controlled by Republicans."

"It's like a carrot," Amelia Nieto, executive director of Long Beach assistance agency Centro Shalom, said of promises of reform and paths to citizenship. "I don't get excited anymore. We really thought this was going to happen when (President George W.) Bush was in office."

Diaz, however, said the new Latino political presence, which many say was a strong factor in Republican political defeats in the most recent elections, could carry the day.

In the presidential races, Obama got 71 percent of the Latino vote in November compared to 27 percent for Republican Mitt Romney.

"I think we have more bite, more beef," he said. "People used to say, 'Latinos don't vote.' No, they vote and we're growing big time."

Senators who announced the agreement Monday acknowledged they were in the very early process and many pitfalls still loomed.

However, Schumer said while other groups of politicians have "trumpeted similar proposals," he said, "We believe this is the year Congress will finally get it done."

Despite hailing the agreement as being bi-partisan, the senators quickly encountered a cool reaction from other lawmakers, including Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who said immigration legislation is too important to be written in a back room.

Although myriad prickly issues remain on the table, most lawmakers agree the nation's inefficient patchwork of immigration laws don't work.

President Barack Obama, who will publicly discuss the initiative Tuesday, has said he is committed to enacting comprehensive immigration.

Besides McCain, Schurmer and Durbin, the senators who endorsed the new principles Monday were Democrats Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado; and Republicans Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Marco Rubio of Florida and Jeff Flake of Arizona.

One thing generally agreed on by people on both sides of the immigration debate is that the current system is inefficient and "broken."

"It's not a 21 st century immigration system," Rubio said.

The new Republican Senator from Florida, who comes from immigrant roots and married into an immigrant family, said it was up to Congress to fix it and "do so in a way that we never have to here again."

Glenn Spencer, the founder and president of Arizona-based American Border Patrol, said border security is paramount and that it is currently laughably inadequate. He contends that 750 undocumented immigrants per day successfully cross the border and evade detention each day near Tucson alone.

"It's out of control," Spencer said. "There has been a surge since August (when the Dream Act was announced) and we would expect a huge surge if amnesty were offered. We believe it's a bad idea to even talk about it."

However, Spencer said the American people would support amnesty if they could reasonably be assured the border was secured and "that's the end of it."

Again Nieto says she has seen promises come and go in the past.

"If there's good news, it will reach me fast," she said. "If there's bad news, it will reach me faster."

Staff writers Brian Charles and Andrew Edwards and the Associated Press contributed to this report.