Senate Scales Down Proposed Guest-Worker Program

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 24, 2007

The Senate slashed the size of a proposed guest-worker program for foreign laborers yesterday, dealing the first real blow to a fragile overhaul of the nation's immigration laws since it reached the Senate floor this week.

The bipartisan 74 to 24 vote trimmed a program that could have admitted as many as 600,000 laborers a year down to 200,000, a level that proponents said would minimize the risk that participants would depress wages and replace U.S. workers.

The Bush administration had strongly opposed the amendment, dispatching Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez to declare before the vote that the measure "would eliminate . . . critical flexibility" in the program and shrivel it to an inadequate size.

But 27 Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), joined Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) and 45 other Democrats in rebuffing that plea. Independent Sen. Bernard Sanders (Vt.) also voted to trim the program.

"There are a variety of jobs that may be filled by guest workers, from construction to hotel service, and we shouldn't be placing American workers in the position of competing with an unlimited number of guest workers," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), the amendment's sponsor.

The bipartisan negotiators who created the immigration bill said the blow to what they call their "grand bargain" will not unravel the coalition. The compromise is premised on four central tenets: tightening border controls and punishing the employers of illegal immigrants; granting legal status to an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country; establishing a robust guest-worker program to give would-be illegal immigrants a legitimate route into the country; and shifting the emphasis of future legal migration away from family reunification and into favoring immigrants with work skills and educations.

The immigration compromise envisioned a program that could issue 400,000 two-year work visas a year, renewable up to three times, provided the laborers left the country for a year between each stint. If the demand for workers is high, the number of visas could rise to as many as 600,000 a year.

With a fixed limit of 200,000 a year, the program would not only be smaller, it would also be less responsive to the fluctuating demand for labor, said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who, along with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), led the negotiations on the compromise.

The compromise continued to absorb body blows outside the Senate. House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), speaking privately to Republican activists Tuesday night, said that he had promised President Bush that he would refrain from discussing the bill in public, but he then called it a "piece of [expletive]." Boehner spokesman Brian Kennedy called the epithet "an off-the-cuff wisecrack."

Signaling just how far the president's power has waned in Congress, half a dozen House Republicans will hold a news conference today to denounce what they call the "Kennedy-Bush amnesty program."

On the other end of the political spectrum, a coalition of Latino groups, including the League of United Latin American Citizens, came out against the Senate bill, declaring that it would "separate families and lead to the exploitation of immigrant workers while resulting in widespread undocumented immigration in the future."

Republicans moved yesterday to bolster the proposed border controls to answer some of the conservative criticism. By voice vote, the Senate adopted an amendment by Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) that would toughen the border controls that must be in place before many of the immigrant-rights measures go into effect. The Department of Homeland Security would have to hire and train 20,000 Border Patrol agents, not simply hire 18,000, as the original deal required. It would also have to build more vehicle barriers and radar and camera towers than first proposed.

The amendment eliminates the deal's nonbinding deadline of 18 months for "operational" control" to be established on the border, making it clear that the department would face no deadline for establishing control before it implements the guest-worker program and new visa system for illegal immigrants.

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