Immigrant bill advances

Senate OKs border patrol upgrade, offers citizenship to most here illegally


WASHINGTON -- A bitter congressional confrontation over revamping immigration policy entered its next stage yesterday, as the Senate approved a sweeping bill that would upgrade border security while offering citizenship to most of the illegal immigrants in the United States.

The bill passed 62 to 36, moving Congress a significant step closer to the first major overhaul of immigration law since 1986.

But key differences between the Senate measure and a bill the House passed late last year makes uncertain the legislation's final contours - or whether an agreement can be reached.

The effort to reach a compromise, strongly endorsed by President Bush, now rests with House and Senate negotiators who will conduct their talks behind closed doors.

Looming as the key hurdle to an accord is staunch opposition to the Senate bill among House conservatives. They prefer the enforcement-only approach of their chamber's bill and view the Senate provisions that would permit illegal immigrants to become citizens as a reward for criminal activity.

Still, passage of the Senate bill represents a victory for Bush, who began a push for a broad overhaul of immigration policy in a speech in January 2004. His proposals sparked an extended debate about border security, the role of immigrants in American life and how best to deal with those who entered the country illegally.

For many of the lawmakers faced with rewriting the laws, the challenge has been to find an elusive middle ground between recognizing the nation's heritage as a nation of immigrants and planning for its future in an uncertain age of terrorism.

Resolving the immigration issue in a comprehensive way "is a national security issue," said Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who is one of the leaders of the bipartisan coalition that shepherded the Senate bill to passage.

Conservative senators roundly condemned the legalization provisions as wrong.

Sen. David Vitter, a Louisiana Republican, argued that if beefed-up enforcement of immigration laws at the nation's borders and in workplaces were not the sole focus of any bill that emerges from Congress, those efforts would not be effective.

Illustrating the GOP divide, the Senate bill passed with more Democratic than Republican support. Voting for the bill were 38 Democrats (including Maryland Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski), 23 Republicans and one independent; voting against it were 32 Republicans and four Democrats.

As Senate passage neared this week, House Republican leaders signaled that they are willing to consider a guest worker program. But they continued to draw the line at legalization measures.

Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, insisted he was optimistic that a compromise could be reached, with the help of the president.

"I believe we can do it," he said. "Now the time has come for very active participation by the president, and I believe he will put a very heavy shoulder to the wheel."

The Senate legislation resembles the outline that Bush laid out in his 2004 speech.

Border security would get a boost, with a total 3,000 Border Patrol agents added this year to the existing 11,300. Over the next five years, another 14,000 agents would join the border force, and there would be extra detention facilities for the illegal immigrants they detain at the border.

The bill also authorizes the construction of 370 miles of fencing along urban areas on the border and 500 miles of vehicle barriers. Employers would have to start using an electronic verification system within 18 months to ensure that all new hires are legal U.S. residents. Companies that hire illegal workers would be slapped with fines of up to $20,000, and repeat offenders would draw prison terms.

In its most controversial section, the bill creates a three-tiered system to deal with illegal immigrants.

Those who arrived since the president's speech in January 2004 would be required to leave. Those here between 2 to 5 years would have to leave the country to pick up a work visa before re-entering, after which they could work toward legal status.

Those here longer than 5 years could stay and eventually apply for permanent legal status, a step toward citizenship, as long as they pay back taxes and fines of at least $3,250, continue working, and learn English and U.S. civics. A guest worker program would allow foreign workers to come in the future and also provide a way for them to gain permanent legal status.

Nicole Gaouette writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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