GOP Backers Offer Immigration Bill Change

Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), at lectern, and two fellow Republicans who have supported the immigration measure say their proposal may help the bill get passed.
Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), at lectern, and two fellow Republicans who have supported the immigration measure say their proposal may help the bill get passed. (By Carol T. Powers -- Bloomberg News)
By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 26, 2007

With a crucial test vote scheduled for today, Republican supporters of a sweeping immigration bill threw their weight yesterday behind a significant change to the legislation that would force illegal immigrants to return to their home countries to apply for legal status.

The change could rattle the delicate bipartisan coalition that forged the Senate's immigration overhaul, but supporters say it may be necessary to pull in enough Republican votes to secure passage by week's end. The bill's authors will have to muster 60 votes today to bring it back up for consideration. The legislation would then have to clear potential amendments before a showdown Thursday over whether to cut off debate and vote on final passage Friday.

Opponents declared yesterday that momentum and public opinion were on their side -- that if they cannot kill the legislation tomorrow, they will stop it by the end of the week.

"The longer this bill hangs out there, the more opposition grows," said Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). "Every day that goes by, more and more senators realize this is not the right immigration bill for America. It cannot be adequately fixed, and it must be stopped."

But the bill's proponents were pressing hard to bolster support from business lobbyists and immigrant rights groups. Administration officials summoned business leaders to the White House yesterday to demand that they put aside efforts to fine-tune the bill and begin lobbying hard for its passage. President Bush will hold this morning a hastily scheduled event with supporters of the bill.

"Immigration reform is too important to our national security, and to our economic competitiveness and growth in this country, to let this opportunity pass," Joel Kaplan, deputy White House chief of staff for policy, said in a conference call with reporters.

Perhaps the most significant shift came from three of the bill's Republican architects: Sens. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.) and Mel Martinez (Fla.). Under the current legislation, virtually all of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants would be granted provisional legal status immediately, provided that within 18 months they pay a fine, cover processing fees and submit to a criminal background check to get a new five-year "Z Visa." If they wanted legal permanent residence, heads of illegal-immigrant households would have to return to their home countries to apply for a green card.

Kyl, Graham and Martinez had already put together an amendment to secure $4.4 billion for border enforcement, create a tracking system to keep tabs on guest workers and permanently bar workers who overstay their visas from returning. Those measures would augment provisions already in the bill to tighten border security and clamp down on employers of illegal immigrants.

Yesterday, the three senators added a provision that would force illegal immigrants to return to their home countries to apply for Z Visas, not just their green cards. With the architects of the bill behind it, supporters predicted that the amendment would pass easily.

The bill "continues to tilt to the right," said Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who has become increasingly concerned about additions to the legislation since debate began.

Even some Republicans backing the bill were hesitant about the change. "I am not enthusiastic about putting people through punitive steps like this for no substantive reason," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.).

Last week, in the first-ever poll of illegal immigrants, 83 percent of the 1,600 undocumented Latinos surveyed told the polling firm Bendixen & Associates that they would pay the thousands of dollars in fines and fees, produce the work documents and submit to the background check needed for a Z Visa. But if they also had to return to their home countries, participation rates would drop to 63 percent, according to the poll commissioned by New America Media, a consortium of ethnic news media.

Indeed, it was the Department of Homeland Security that wanted legalization not to be contingent on leaving the country, because DHS officials wanted to bring illegal immigrants out of the shadows and into the legal system, Specter said. With the "touchback" requirement, millions may stay underground.

"It would be a huge blow, an enormous bill, if this happens," said Cecilia Muñoz, vice president for policy at the National Council for La Raza, the largest Latino rights group.

But Muñoz and members of other immigrant rights groups said they will still support the bill's passage, while pressing for changes in the House or in eventual House-Senate negotiations.

"If this was the final bill, if this was going straight from the Senate floor to the Rose Garden signing ceremony, there would be full-throated opposition, but it's not. We still have another chamber to go through," said Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, which supports the bill.

And aides involved in the change said making legalization dependent on a return home could dampen charges that the bill is "amnesty" for illegal immigrants, adding that without it, the bill may never get to the House.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company