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.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) expressed serious concerns about the temporary-worker provision and the family migration structure in a tepid response to the deal. Sen. Robert Menendez (N.J.), a key Democrat on the issue, refused to sign the deal he had helped negotiate for months.
And Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), a White House hopeful, warned that "the proposed bill could devalue the importance of family reunification, replace the current group of undocumented immigrants with a new undocumented population consisting of guest workers who will overstay their visas, and potentially drive down wages of American workers."
Conservatives were no less skeptical. The immigration overhaul that passed the Senate last year identified three categories of illegal immigrants, based on the length of time they had been in the country, and would have granted immediate legal status only to those who had been here the longest. Others would have had to return home or would have faced deportation.
This year's legislation would grant undocumented workers who came into the country before January a permit to remain. They could then apply for a new, four-year "Z Visa," renewable indefinitely, as long as they pay a $5,000 fine, a $1,500 processing fee, show a clean work record and pass a criminal background check.
The new bill's authors "seem to think that they can dupe the American public into accepting a blanket amnesty if they just call it 'comprehensive' or 'earned legalization' or 'regularization,' " said Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), a presidential candidate who is a strong opponent of illegal immigration. "The president is so desperate for a legacy and a domestic policy win that he is willing to sell out the American people and our national security."
Bush has wanted to include immigration changes to his legacy since he was governor of Texas. And it is one of a few issues in which he has been willing to buck key factions in his party to achieve a compromise. At one point, Bush had been hopeful that the issue would lead to a realignment of American politics, with more Hispanics joining the Republican Party.
White House officials viewed yesterday's breakthrough as a sign that the president can still have an impact on domestic policy despite the poisoned relations between the administration and congressional Democrats over Iraq. It was the second major bipartisan deal struck by Bush in the past week, following a deal with House Democrats last Friday to move ahead with several free-trade pacts.
But the deal is far from done. The compromise's authors asked both sides to consider the alternative. With an election year approaching, Democrats and Republicans said the coming weeks offer the last window of opportunity for Congress to act. If the bill fails, an immigration system that both sides see as hopelessly broken would go unremedied for years.
"Year after year, we've heard talk about reforming our system. We've heard the bumper-sticker solutions, the campaign ads, and we know how divisive it is," Kennedy said. "Well, now, it is time for action. 2007 is the year we must fix our broken system."
Staff writer Michael Abramowitz contributed to this report.