Time may be running out on immigration reform

If panel can't finish work, Senate to turn focus to border security bill


WASHINGTON -- President Bush's long journey to immigration reform comes to a crucial test today.

When he entered the White House in January 2001, Bush declared his intention to forge a tighter relationship with the rest of the Americas. As Texas governor, he had privately repudiated the anti-illegal-immigrant politics of fellow Republican Gov. Pete Wilson of California. He joined with his friend, Mexican President Vicente Fox, in promoting plans for providing visas to Mexican laborers.

And then the political world turned. Borders were for closing. Foreigners were a threat. Now, after many twists and with the clock ticking, the Senate is embarking on an immigration debate that will shape lives, borders and political careers.

"Everyone recognizes the seriousness of this issue," Rep. Dan Lungren, a California Republican, said Friday. "The real question is, will we have enough time to do this?"

This morning, the Senate Judiciary Committee was to reconvene after a week's recess that hasn't included much rest. Behind the scenes, staffers, lobbyists and lawmakers have been furiously negotiating over programs that could legalize some of 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants and create a new guest-worker program.

Today will be a test for the 19-member Judiciary Committee. If it can't finish its work, the Senate will take up a more limited bill focusing on border security.

Bush, too, faces a test -- with his fellow Republicans. Congressional elections are looming, and many Republicans have broken ranks with Bush over immigration. Their concerns about porous borders and foreign terrorists outweigh pleas by business associations for them to recognize a need for foreign workers.

In December, the House blended immigration reform and anti-terrorism measures and passed a bill that increases penalties against illegal immigration, making it a felony, as well as penalties against hiring and aiding illegal immigrants. The bill didn't provide any measure for legalizing undocumented workers or providing guest workers. It calls for all employers to start using a computerized system to check the validity of workers' identification documents with federal databases.

On Thursday, Bush met with business representatives and gave a nod of approval to more comprehensive reforms, which mean going beyond enforcement by providing guest worker visas and an adjustment of status for some of the illegal immigrants already here.

"I think now is the time for the United States Congress to act to get an immigration plan that is comprehensive and rational and achieves important objectives," Bush said.

More than 100 farm groups, joined together as the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform, are rallying for a reform that acknowledges a reliance on immigrant labor. The coalition's lobbyist, Monte Lake, joined Bush at the White House on Thursday for the immigration discussion.

Dozens of groups ranging from the California Landscape Contractors Association to hotel giant Marriott International are part of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, which also sent representatives to meet Bush.

The Mexican government has continued attempts to persuade U.S. lawmakers to embrace a guest-worker solution. On March 20, the Mexican government took out full-page ads in The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times in an attempt to make its case.

Against this backdrop, the Judiciary Committee faces extraordinary pressure today.

If the committee falls short and fails to vote on a proposal, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has said he will push forward his own enforcement-centered bill as the starting point for a two-week Senate debate.

Only a week ago, the committee appeared poised to approve two crucial compromises involving guest workers and illegal immigrants already in this country. But detailed negotiations hit a rough patch during the recess, lobbyists say.

Even if the committee approves a proposal that includes guest workers and adjustment of status of illegal immigrants, it would have to pass the full Senate and go to a conference committee.

Only 5,000 visas a year are available to U.S. employers who want to sponsor an unskilled foreign worker as a permanent resident.

Despite Bush's support for comprehensive reform, he has been largely passive over the years and left the detailed work up to Congress. The closest the Senate Judiciary Committee has gotten in its recent deliberations is an unofficial endorsement of several potential compromises.

One is a guest-worker program serving up to 400,000 foreign workers annually. The immigrants could secure legal work for up to eight years, during which time they could apply for permanent legal status. In theory, they would have to return to their home countries at some point, but they could also be exempted from that requirement.

The committee's other apparent compromise involves what to do about illegal immigrants present in the United States.

To mollify enough conservatives, one proposal would grant illegal immigrants temporary legal status but make them wait for permanent residency behind 3 million applicants in line for visas granted to people with family sponsors in the United States. "I'm willing to work out a way to put them in line, at the end of the line," said Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican.

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