Proposal For Guest Workers Survives

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 23, 2007

A fragile Senate coalition backing an embattled overhaul of the nation's immigration laws survived its first legislative test yesterday, beating back an effort to strip a guest-worker program from the immigration bill.

The 64 to 31 vote against an amendment by Sens. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) showed surprising strength for the bipartisan coalition's "grand bargain." Dorgan offered a nearly identical amendment last May to last year's Senate immigration bill and garnered 28 votes.

But this year, he secured the support of the Senate majority leader, Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). And Democrats vowed they would come back to the program again and again, with amendments to cut the guest-worker program's size in half, to add an expiration date, to torpedo the program if workers do not comply with the rules, and to bolster worker protections for participants.

"At a minimum, we've set the stage to cutting the program in half," Boxer predicted.

The immigration bill would set up a guest-worker visa for 400,000 temporary workers a year. If demand is high enough, temporary-worker visas could expand to 600,000 a year. The two-year visas would be renewable up to three times, provided that the workers leave the country for a year between two-year stints. As workers renew their visas and new workers come in, the program could ultimately expand to as many as 3.6 million workers in 10 years.

Opponents of the program said it would depress wages of U.S. workers while creating an underclass of poorly paid migrants with no access to the protections of citizenship.

Proponents said wages are already being depressed by illegal immigrants. The new program would offer labor protections that would bolster wages on the low end of the pay scale, supply workers to industries suffering labor shortages, and provide a legal avenue for work to migrants who otherwise would cross the border illegally.

With the compromise taking fire from all parts of the political spectrum, White House counselor Dan Bartlett yesterday challenged Democratic leaders to help assure passage of the compromise bill, which is being pushed by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). The "onus will be on the Democratic leadership," Bartlett said.

"They now have an obligation to show they can work in a bipartisan way, show leadership in their own caucus and bring a bill that is acceptable to this bipartisan arrangement so that we can get a bill to the president's desk," Bartlett said. "If it's good enough for Ted Kennedy, it ought to be good enough for Nancy Pelosi." Pelosi (D-Calif.) is the speaker of the House.

Staff writer Dan Balz contributed to this report.

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