GOP Senators Seek Deal on Immigration Bill

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 4, 2006

Senate Republicans important to passing a wholesale revision of the nation's immigration laws focused yesterday on a compromise that would get tough on illegal immigrants new to the United States while offering those who have been here at least five years a path to citizenship.

The talks, led by Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), are aimed at finding a formula that would persuade a majority of Republicans to support an immigration bill now backed largely by Democrats. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) plans to push for a final vote on immigration legislation this week, but it is not clear whether any measure can muster the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster.

Under the compromise proposal, still in the early stages, illegal immigrants who could produce pay stubs, billing records or other documentation showing they have lived and worked in the United States for five years would qualify for a work visa and an opportunity to apply for citizenship. They could stay in the country as they apply for a green card.

Those not meeting the requirements would have to return to their native countries. New measures in the larger immigration bill, such as a tamper-proof identification card and sanctions against employers who hire illegal immigrants, would convince recent illegal immigrants they have no choice but to comply, advocates of the compromise said.

"We're going to have to compromise and recognize that the 12 million people [here illegally] is not a monolithic group," Frist said Sunday on CNN, alluding to the Hagel-Martinez talks. "Some have been here 10 years. They're assimilated to our society, and they may have a road to a green card. But some of the 12 million people here -- in fact, 40 percent -- have been here for less than five years, [and] need to be dealt with in a different fashion."

The compromise could satisfy some conservatives opposed to any program that offers illegal immigrants a way to stay in the country and work toward citizenship, which they term "amnesty." Under the plan, illegal immigrants could not be put ahead of others legally in the country and seeking U.S. citizenship. Because long-term illegal immigrants would still have to apply for a green card through normal channels, they also could not jump ahead of workers hoping to come to the United States through legal channels.

Some Democratic support could fall away under the compromise, but Frist has been reluctant to allow such a politically contentious bill to pass the Senate without most Republicans backing it.

As it passed out of the Judiciary Committee, the Senate immigration bill now under consideration would bolster border security and toughen penalties on employers and others who aid illegal immigrants. But it would also allow undocumented workers already in the country a six-year work visa and an opportunity to gain citizenship if they learn English, pay fines and back taxes, and meet other requirements. In addition, the bill would create a guest-worker program for around 400,000 new immigrants a year.

That bill has the support of virtually all 44 Democratic senators and as many as a dozen Republicans, including moderates such as Sen. Mike DeWine (Ohio) and conservatives such as Sen. Sam Brownback (Kan.). Aides to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), one of the bill's authors, said the measure could have enough support by week's end to cut off debate, but it is expected to be close.

Conservative opponents, led by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), back a guest-worker program but say the workers should have to return to their countries when their visas expire. But some Democratic support could also falter, as liberal populists argue that the bill would create a pipeline of cheap labor to drive down wages and harm U.S. workers.

"I don't think you need a professor to understand that when you import substantial cheap labor, it displaces American workers," said Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (N.D.), for now the only declared Democratic opponent to the measure. "I'm surprised there's any substantial support for a guest-worker program in our caucus."

Hagel and Martinez are co-sponsors of the Kennedy bill, but Senate aides familiar with the negotiations say both are eager to have a fall-back measure if it fails. Frist is pushing to make the possible Hagel-Martinez compromise the Republican bill, not a fall-back measure.

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