(CNN) – A bipartisan proposal to revamp U.S. immigration policies will contain three policy steps that must be accomplished before undocumented workers can apply for legal status, an architect of the measure said on Sunday.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, said the "triggers" embedded in a legislative proposal to be unveiled this week are necessary to ensure workable reforms that discourage immigrants from coming to the United States illegally.
"If we don't do enforcement, if enforcement is not a part of this, and if we don't modernize legal immigration, if we don't do all of these things, then we're going to be right back here in 10 years having the same conversation - and that would be the worst outcome," Rubio told chief political correspondent Candy Crowley on CNN's "State of the Union."
Rubio, who made the rounds of Sunday talk shows, disputed conservative critics who say a pathway to citizenship is tantamount to amnesty.
“This is not amnesty. Amnesty is the forgiveness of something. Amnesty is anything that says do it illegally, it will be cheaper and easier,” he said on “Fox News Sunday.”
President Barack Obama has named comprehensive immigration reform as a top priority of his second term, fulfilling a promise he made during both of his White House bids.
Republicans have also expressed renewed interest in the issue as the party looks for new ways to expand its appeal among Hispanic voters.
The issue has a tortured history in Congress. Past attempts, including during George W. Bush’s presidency, failed and caused some supportive Republicans to lose backing with core conservatives.
But as the number of undocumented immigrants in the United States grows, both Republicans and Democrats say now is the time to revamp a system that neither side regards as adequate.
Rubio is viewed as a possible 2016 Republican presidential candidate, who insiders conclude is potentially risking crucial GOP political capital negotiating with Democrats on such a hot-button issue with uncertain prospects in Congress.
He is a member of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” senators who plan to roll out their comprehensive reform proposal on Tuesday.
The package includes an agreement on a path to citizenship that would affect the nearly 11 million undocumented residents currently in the United States.
It would take 10 years for undocumented workers to get a green card, and then another three years to gain citizenship.
Along the way, undocumented workers would have to pay a fine and back taxes and pass a background check. The size of the fine remains unclear.
But that pathway to citizenship would remain contingent on three "triggers," which Rubio described Sunday.
They include forming an "e-verify" system for employers to check the legal status of workers; tracking immigrants entering and leaving the country, and bolstering border security, which Rubio specified would "include fencing."
"All of these things are going to happen because they are triggers, triggers for the green card process that we are laying out in our proposal," Rubio said. "That is the incentive to ensure they happen.”
“In essence, for those who are undocumented in this country, not only will they have to wait 10 years, more than 10 years, they will have to wait until all three of those things are fully implemented. If they are not implemented, there will be no green cards awarded. We think that will be an incentive," he added.
That contrasts with past positions by Obama, who has said tying a pathway to citizenship by strengthening border security could delay the process for undocumented workers.
The White House also has argued the U.S. border is currently the most secure it's ever been.
Rubio admitted on Sunday the plan was at odds with Obama's position, but noted the Senate bill had been shaped by both Democrats and Republicans.
"A bipartisan group of senators agree that should be the trigger, and hopefully we can pass a bill that has that in there," he said. "And if we do, he'll have a decision to make about whether to sign it or not. But it has to be a part of it, otherwise it won't happen."
One of the four Democrats in the “Gang of Eight,” Sen. Charles Schumer of New York praised Rubio’s efforts on Sunday, calling him a “tremendous asset” in hammering out the plan.
“The present situation is untenable,” Schumer said on ABC’s “This Week.” “This is a balanced approach that both prevents future waves of illegal immigration, but has common sense solutions.”
Rubio will also have some work to do to convince some fellow Republicans concerned the “Gang of Eight” prescription amounts to amnesty.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, worries the proposal would have economic consequences during an already uneven recovery from recession.
“I think it's incumbent on Republicans, Democrats, and every one of us to ask what's going to happen to working Americans, whose wages have been falling since 2000, who are unemployed at a very high rate. It will impact them adversely,” Sessions said on ABC.
Rubio, however, said he could justify "every aspect of the bill" to conservatives, noting he held many of the same positions in the past.
"I think part of my job is to explain to people what it is we worked on, to try to justify it and hopefully gain their support. That's what I look forward to doing," he said.
"We can try to address it in a way that's responsible and humane, in a way that isn't unfair to the people that are doing it the right way, and doesn't encourage people to do it in the wrong way in the future," he continued. "And that's what we've arrived at, and I hope to be able to convince people it's the right approach."
Asked whether his position as a point man for comprehensive immigration reform could influence his chances in 2016, Rubio claimed, “I haven't even thought about it in that way.”
Rubio has not said whether he will be a candidate for president.
Explaining himself to an incredulous Crowley – “Seriously, senator?” – Rubio said his work on immigration reform would speak for itself with voters.
“My belief has always been that if I do my job and I do my job well, I'll have options and opportunities in the future to do things, whether it's run for re-election, run for something else or give someone else a chance at public service. And that's how I view this issue,” he said.