Deal on Immigration Reached

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 18, 2007

The Bush administration and a bipartisan group of senators reached agreement yesterday on a sprawling overhaul of the nation's immigration laws that would bring an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants out of society's shadows while stiffening border protections and cracking down on employers of undocumented workers.

The delicate compromise, 380 pages long and three months in the making, represents perhaps the last opportunity for President Bush to win a major legislative accomplishment for his second term, and it could become the most significant revision of the nation's immigration system in 41 years. Bush hailed the agreement as "one that will help enforce our borders, but equally importantly, it will treat people with respect."

But though immigration proponents and opponents lauded the work done to reach a deal, both sides -- including Democratic leaders in the House and the Senate -- said they could torpedo the legislation in the end, after the Senate begins debate on the bill next week and after the House considers its version in July.

The Senate deal would grant temporary legal status to virtually all illegal immigrants in the country, while allowing them to apply for residence visas and eventual citizenship. A temporary-worker program would allow as many as 400,000 migrants into the country each year, but they would have to leave after two years. And the current visa system, which stresses family ties, would be augmented by a complex point system that would favor skilled, educated workers. Most of those changes would take effect only after the implementation of tough new border controls and a crackdown on the employment of undocumented workers.

"The question is, 'Do you want to solve the problem, or do you want to complain about it?' " said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. "There will be people who want to complain and will miss the problem if they can't complain about it. This is about solving it."

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) pleaded: "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good."

But the compromises needed to win the support of a liberal lion such as Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and a conservative illegal-immigration foe such as Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) have made the bill extremely complex and have opened it to attacks from all sides.

Democratic leaders were leery of three pivotal concessions to the conservatives. The first would make illegal immigrants' access to long-term visas and the new guest-worker program contingent upon the implementation of the border crackdown. Before those immigrant-rights measures could go into effect, the government must deploy 18,000 new Border Patrol agents and four unmanned aerial vehicles; build 200 miles of vehicle barriers, 370 miles of fencing, and 70 ground-based radar and camera towers; provide funds for the detention of 27,500 illegal immigrants a day; and complete new identification tools to help employers screen out illegal job applicants.

Skeptics say those would take years, but Chertoff stressed yesterday that they could be done in 18 months.

Another sticking point came from the proposed replacement of an immigration system primarily designed to reunify families with a point system that would give new emphasis to skills and education. Automatic family-reunification visas would no longer apply to the adult siblings and children of U.S. citizens, and visas for parents would be capped. Instead, points would be granted to migrants with work experience in high-demand occupations and who have worked for a U.S.-based firm. Additional points would be awarded based on education levels, English proficiency and family ties.

"We need to find a system that values and honors the work of all," said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (Ill.), who is one of the Democrats entrusted by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) with developing a House bill. "The landscaper is just as important as the computer scientist."

Finally, immigrants coming into the country under the temporary work program would have to leave when their permits expire, with no chance to appeal for permanent residence. Labor unions say such a system would depress wages and create an underclass.

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