A strong guest-worker program would bolster border security, Sen. Jeff Flake told Hispanic business leaders Monday.

"Right now we don't have a sufficiently robust guest-worker plan to take into account our labor needs," Flake said. "That will take a lot of pressure off the border."

Flake is a member of the group of federal lawmakers called the "Gang of Eight" who are working on a massive immigration overhaul. He made his comments about the need for a stronger and more flexible guest-worker program to about 100 people at an immigration forum hosted by the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

The guest-worker program was one of the latest hurdles Flake and other lawmakers had to overcome in crafting comprehensive immigration reform legislation. Sen. Charles Schumer, a Democrat, helped forge a deal between business and labor leaders late last week.

"In the end, we just put stricter caps in certain industries like construction," Flake said. Labor needs for construction can be addressed if the market requires it, he said.

"We need to have respect for the law, and we need a law that can be enforced," he said, "and I've argued we haven't had one in a while."

Flake, who grew up on a cattle ranch with 39 cousins and 10 siblings, said the family hired migrant labor that came up mostly from Mexico.

"Since that time, working alongside those who came - some illegally - I've never been able to place everyone who came in that manner in a criminal class," he said.

"I see why they come and what motivates them, and the vast majority of them who are here in an undocumented status simply are trying to make a life better for themselves and for their family. Hopefully, with this legislation, we can recognize that."

The bipartisan group of senators, which also includes Sen. John McCain, expects to introduce its bill when Congress convenes anew on Monday.

For the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the No.1 issue is the guest-worker program, said Lea Márquez-Peterson, president and CEO.

"We need legal status for the workforce that we need here in Arizona," she said.

The group is also concerned about trade with Mexico.

"We need this conversation to happen with a tone of respect," she said. "We've spent the last three years recovering from SB 1070, and we want to continue that dialogue."

As the bill is drafted, details are slowly emerging of what can be expected.

Despite the attention on low-skilled jobs, Flake said high-skilled workers are greatly needed, and it's "fair to say there will be some shift of visas to skilled, education-based visas."

Those who come out of the shadows would get a provisional legal status that can be renewed in five years. After 10 years, they can apply for permanent residency, which is the step before citizenship.

People would be required to go through background checks, pay fines and back taxes and learn English, a requirement currently only for U.S. citizenship but not for permanent residency, as the senators propose.

The path to citizenship would be shorter for those who were brought to the country illegally by their parents and for agricultural workers, Flake said.

But all of them would have to get in "line" behind those currently applying for a green card.

At this rate, it would take 19 years to clear existing backlogs if no additional visas are allocated, the Washington, D.C.-based Migration Policy Institute estimates.

Flake said the immigration overhaul would speed up the backlog with additional resources.

Border security is the first step to any reform, Flake said. And that effort needs to begin with a set of metrics and a definition. Further, better technology and manpower are essential to security and trade.

"We want a border friendly to commerce but one that is a better barrier to illegal traffic," he said.

The bill will also include an entry and exit system to reduce the number of those who overstay their visas.

"About 40 percent of those in the country illegally never snuck across the border," Flake said. "They came legally and never left."

At the end, the bill is not going to make anybody happy, Flake said, "but sometimes that's the mark of a bill that can actually move."

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Contact reporter Perla Trevizo at ptrevizo@azstarnet.com or at 573-4213. On Twitter: @Perla_Trevizo