By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 17, 2007
Senate negotiators reached a tentative agreement yesterday on a broad overhaul of the nation's immigration laws that would offer virtually all of the nation's 12 million undocumented workers a route to legal status while shifting migration preferences away from the extended families of citizens toward more skilled and educated workers.
Under the tentative deal, undocumented workers who crossed into the country before Jan. 1 would be offered a temporary-residency permit while they await a new "Z Visa" that would allow them to live and work lawfully here. The head of an illegal-immigrant household would have eight years to return to his or her home country to apply for permanent legal residence for members of the household, but each Z Visa itself would be renewable indefinitely, as long as the holder passes a criminal background check, remains fully employed and pays a $5,000 fine, plus a paperwork-processing fee.
A separate, temporary-worker program would be established for 400,000 migrants a year. Each temporary work visa would be good for two years and could be renewed up to three times, as long as the worker leaves the country for a year between renewals.
To satisfy Republicans, those provisions would come in force only after the federal government implements tough new border controls and a crackdown on employers that hire illegal immigrants. Republicans are demanding 18,000 new Border Patrol agents, 370 miles of additional border fencing and an effective, electronic employee-verification system for the workplace.
"This is not the architecture of an immigration bill that I would have initially liked to see," conceded Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), the Democrats' chief negotiator, "but we're not dealing with that. This is a legislative process."
The agreement would effectively bring an immigration overhaul to the Senate floor next week, but its passage is far from assured. The framework has the support of the White House and the chief negotiators, Kennedy and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.). But immigration rights groups and some key Senate Democrats remain leery, especially of changing a preference system that has favored family members for more than 40 years.
"When they say, 'We're all in agreement, we have a deal,' certainly I don't feel that way," said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.).
Since 1965, migrants have needed a sponsor in the United States, meaning that virtually all immigrants have had family members or employers already here. The new proposal would augment that system with a merit-based program that would award points based on education levels, work experience and English proficiency, as well as family ties. Automatic family unifications would remain but would be limited to spouses and children under 21. The adult children and siblings of U.S. residents would probably need other credentials, such as skills and education, to qualify for an immigrant visa. A number of unskilled parents would be allowed in, but that flow would be capped.
To Republicans, the new system would make the nation more economically competitive while opening access to a wider array of migrants. "I think you'll find the point system to be pretty well balanced," said Sen. Arlen Specter (Pa.).
But to immigration groups, the proposal is a radical break from existing U.S. law, and without changes, they could withhold their support from the final bill.
"We want to see an immigration reform debate on the Senate floor. We want to see this move forward. But we are wildly uncomfortable with a lot of what we're hearing," said Cecilia Muñoz, chief lobbyist for the National Council of La Raza.
The other hurdle will come from the temporary-worker program. The immigration bill that passed the Senate last year with bipartisan support would have allowed laborers entering the country as temporary workers to stay and work toward citizenship. But Republicans said this year that they could support such a program only if the workers would be truly temporary.
Immigration groups say such a program would only spur a new wave of illegal migration, as temporary workers go underground once their work permits expire. Perhaps more importantly, two powerful service unions -- the Service Employees International Union and Unite Here -- have threatened to pull their support from any immigration bill that would not give temporary workers a way to remain in the country, fearing that a truly temporary program would drive down wages for low-skill work.