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.).
Like previous bills, the agreement would authorize the hiring of 12,000 new border patrol agents, deploy new technologies such as unmanned aerial vehicles, require tamper-proof identification cards that would replace easily forged Social Security cards used now to obtain work and ratchet up penalties on employers who hire illegal immigrants.
"Even though we all feel good about today, it pales in comparison to the millions and millions of people out there who today feel that they have a chance to participate in the American Dream," said Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.).
The deal came after days of delicate negotiations designed to persuade Republicans who had supported a more lenient measure that emerged from the Senate Judiciary Committee last week to shift their backing to a bill with more Republican ownership, GOP aides said. The deal began to come together during marathon meetings last weekend, but Kennedy and other Democrats balked at joining, insisting that they had enough votes to pass the Judiciary Committee version.
On Wednesday, Frist turned the tide against the Democrats. That was when two of the Judiciary Committee bill's primary sponsors, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), informed Kennedy that they were no longer with him and, instead, would back the Martinez-Hagel compromise. Hours later, McCain announced that he was abandoning his own bill and supporting the compromise plan.
At a meeting early yesterday morning, Kennedy secured a few changes that Republicans considered minor, reducing the number of foreign guest-worker visas available each year from 400,000 to 325,000; increasing the number of employment-based green cards from 290,000 to 450,000 a year to accommodate the illegal immigrants who would be required to report to the border to apply for a green card; and strengthening labor protections for guest workers. Then Kennedy went to the Senate floor to urge Democrats to sign on.
The deal has drawn ardent opposition from some Senate conservatives, such as Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who dismissed it as "artificial and meaningless." AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney said the agreement "tears at the heart of true immigration reform." And former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) called it "a cave-in" to the Democrats, not a compromise.
Some immigration experts questioned whether the legislation would work. Illegal immigrants who crossed the border within the past two years are not likely to leave, said Jennifer Gordon, a professor of immigration and labor law at Fordham Law School in New York.
Even if new rules make employment more difficult to obtain, undocumented workers have always found a way to work, Gordon said.
The 1 million or so workers that remain underground would be the seeds of the next immigration crisis, she added.
Then there are the 2.8 million people who would be required to report to a border crossing. The government will have to provide ironclad assurances that undocumented workers would be allowed to return if illegal immigrants are to be persuaded to leave their families and head to the frontier, said Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, an immigrant rights group.
"Sure, there's some complexities associated with it, but as compared with the status quo, it's nirvana," McCain said.
The real hurdle is the House. Democrats were demanding assurances yesterday that the delicate agreement would not be gutted in negotiations with House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) and other House negotiators. McCain promised to produce a letter with numerous Republican signatures vowing to vote against a final deal that violates the spirit of the compromise.
House advocates of a border security bill with a guest-worker component say they have enough Republican and Democratic votes for passage. But House GOP leaders would have to abandon their long-standing practice of allowing votes only on bills with overwhelming Republican support.
House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has said that he is open to some sort of guest-worker program, but an outspoken group of Republicans have said they will not allow any such measure to become law.
"The Senate amnesty deal is miserable public policy that will be rejected by the House of Representatives and has already been rejected by the American people," declared Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), a champion of the movement to strengthen the borders and deport illegal immigrants. "It continues the running joke that is our immigration system."