Senators Joe Leiberman (D-Conn.), left to right, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), and Edward Kennedy (D-MA).
Senators Joe Leiberman (D-Conn.), left to right, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), and Edward Kennedy (D-MA).
Melina Mara - The Washington Post

Senate Pact Offers Permits To Most Illegal Immigrants

Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), from left, Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) confer on the accord.
Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.), from left, Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) confer on the accord. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

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By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 7, 2006

A bipartisan group of senators reached accord yesterday on a dramatic restructuring of the nation's immigration laws that would offer most of the nation's 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants a work permit and a shot at citizenship.

The plan would tighten security along the border and create a multi-tiered system for dealing with undocumented workers. It would make it easiest for those who have lived in the United States for more than five years to obtain citizenship and theoretically impossible for those who have been here for less than two years to stay.

The breakthrough, embraced by two-thirds of the senators, including Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), followed nearly two weeks of difficult negotiations and cleared the way for a final vote after the two-week spring recess. But Republican and Democratic aides warned that the compromise is delicate. Even if it can hold, the Senate plan is a far cry from the hard-edged measure passed by the House in December, which would essentially seal the nation's borders and deport millions of illegal immigrants.

Senate and House negotiators and the White House will have to work out a compromise that bridges the strong differences within the two parties and among conflicting business, labor, religious and Hispanic rights groups.

"We've had a huge breakthrough," Frist told reporters. Kennedy said the compromise sends a message to millions of illegal immigrants that "you are going to be welcome, and you won't have to live in fear in the future."

House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) cautioned: "We're committed to trying to get real immigration reform finished before this fall, but no one should underestimate the challenges we'll have in trying to get there."

Under the accord, as many as 8 million undocumented workers who can prove that they have been in the country for five years or more before the legislation is enacted would be granted a renewable work visa, after they pay a $2,000 penalty and any back taxes, and undergo a criminal background check. After five years, they could apply for citizenship, provided they remain employed, learn English and do not commit crimes.

About 2.8 million illegal immigrants who have been in the country for more than two years but less than five would have three years to return to a port of entry along the border, such as El Paso, cross the border and apply for one of 450,000 green cards that will be available each year. Kennedy said the whole process could take less than a day, and the immigrants could then return to their U.S. homes. However, Republican aides warned that there would be no guarantees, and that some of those immigrants could get stuck across the border.

Of the 450,000 green cards that would be available every year, as many as 300,000 would go to low-skilled workers, Senate aides say. With a green card, those workers would also be eligible to apply for citizenship but would not have a guaranteed path to becoming Americans.

The legal-status benefits under the measure would go to heads of households and would apply to family members.

Illegal immigrants who have been in the country for two years or less would have to return to their home countries.

In addition, foreign workers seeking access to the U.S. labor market would be eligible for 325,000 new guest-worker visas annually. The bipartisan compromise was written largely by Sens. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.).


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