WASHINGTON – Congress’ struggle to overhaul America’s immigration law heads next into House-Senate negotiations that could last all summer. They will test President Bush’s ability to forge a compromise on an emotional issue in an election year.
As expected, the Senate voted 62-36 Thursday to pass landmark legislation that would put nearly two-thirds of the nation’s illegal immigrants on track to eventual U.S. citizenship and create a guest-worker program to give U.S. employers a steady supply of low-skilled foreign labor.
The Senate bill embraces the basic concepts of Bush’s call for comprehensive immigration reform and also includes toughened enforcement provisions, increased penalties on employers who hire illegal workers and a combination of fences, technology and increased manpower to help plug the porous U.S.-Mexico border.
But the volatile debate over immigration next moves to a House-Senate negotiating committee, where lawmakers will be hard pressed to find middle ground between the multilayered Senate bill and a House measure that focuses more on expanded enforcement.
Leaders on both sides say the ultimate outcome is impossible to predict.
Backers of the bipartisan Senate plan are calling on Bush to use the full force of the White House to forge a compromise, but acknowledge that the president is weakened by declining polls and his growing lame-duck status.
House Republican leaders denounce the Senate’s legalization provisions as “amnesty” and remain adamantly opposed to the Senate bill. Some declared it all but dead on arrival.
“The nation needs legislation that will secure our borders and provide meaningful immigration reform – this bill completely misses that mark,” said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who opposed it. He vowed to rewrite the Senate bill as a member of the House-Senate conference.
Hailed as the most sweeping immigration bill in two decades, the Senate measure emerged from weeks of rancorous deliberations that paralleled massive demonstrations by immigrants and their supporters across the country. The bill was co-sponsored by Sens. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb.
As many as 12 million illegal immigrants, more than half from Mexico, have entered the United States to find work. Their presence has provoked an angry response from many U.S. citizens, who say illegal immigrants cause a multibillion-dollar drain on social services and unfairly wrest jobs from U.S. workers.
Perhaps the Senate bill’s most controversial provision is a three-tiered approach to illegal immigrants. The nearly 7 million who’ve been in the United States five years or longer would be allowed to stay. They could become permanent legal residents in six years and U.S. citizens five years later by paying $3,250 in fees, learning English, paying back taxes and passing background checks.
Illegal immigrants who have lived here between two to five years – estimated at nearly 3 million – would be eligible for “deferred mandatory departure,” allowing them to stay and work for another three years.
They would be required to leave after three years, but could return as participants in the guest-worker program. A so-called “touch-back” provision would enable them to satisfy the requirement by briefly exiting the country and returning through a U.S. port of entry. They would also be eligible to apply for “green cards” to become permanent legal residents.
The more than 1.5 million immigrants who’ve been here less than two years would be required to return to their native countries.
Martinez and Hagel crafted the three-tiered structure as a compromise to draw wavering Republicans, but even proponents acknowledge that it could be difficult to administer.
Another lightning-rod provision sets up the H2-C guest worker program. It would allow U.S. employers to hire foreign workers for low-skill jobs, largely in hotels, restaurants, construction and landscaping, if they’re unable to find American workers for those positions. The workers would hold temporary visas for up to six years and would be eligible to apply for green cards.
The House-Senate conference committee may begin work shortly after Congress returns from a weeklong recess in early June.