Democrats, GOP reach accord on immigrants

Senate bill offers citizenship to most in the U.S. illegally

May 18, 2007|By Nicole Gaouette | Nicole Gaouette,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- After months of painstaking negotiations, a bipartisan group of senators forged an agreement yesterday on an immigration overhaul bill that would allow illegal immigrants to become citizens, reshape how legal immigrants are admitted, and create security measures that eventually would require U.S. citizens to prove they are legally eligible to work.

The plan to legalize the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants and to create a new temporary worker program would not start until steps are completed to strengthen border security and work-site enforcement.

The bill calls for hiring about 6,000 Border Patrol officers, building hundreds of miles of fencing and vehicle barriers, and expanding surveillance with radar towers and aerial drones. Employers would have to verify electronically that new workers are legal and would face stiff penalties for hiring illegally.

The senators and Cabinet secretaries who negotiated the measure stressed that it must pass soon before looming election politics makes it impossible to tackle the highly controversial issue.

"This is the last, best chance we'll have as a Congress," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican. "If this somehow collapsed, it would be years before you could re-create this."

At a news conference in the Capitol, the negotiators acknowledged that their compromise bill would provoke intense criticism from both ends of the political spectrum that could imperil it in the Senate and House.

"This plan isn't perfect, but it's a strong bill and it is a worthy solution," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the lead Democratic negotiator.

The intricately crafted bill brings President Bush a step closer to a domestic goal that he has championed since he took office. Yesterday, he hailed the deal as a "historic moment" and said he was "anxious to sign a comprehensive immigration bill as soon as I possibly can."

Dissenting voices from the Senate quickly signaled how difficult the president's goal may be. "We should not give a blanket amnesty to illegal immigrants who want to flaunt the laws of this land," said Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia.

Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican and one of the negotiators, said he had "serious concerns" because some key details have yet to be drafted.

The Senate plans to take up the bill Monday, and the leadership aims to have a final vote before Memorial Day - an ambitious goal in light of the contentious debate over last year's Senate immigration bill. That bill passed the Senate but was never debated in the House.

The two bills have similar elements, but the new one makes far more substantial changes to the immigration system. It also offers more illegal immigrants a chance, as Kennedy put it, "to come out of the shadows and into the sunshine of America."

The proposed bill would immediately offer probationary legal status to illegal immigrants who were in the country before Jan. 1, 2007, and allow those who qualify to gain citizenship within an estimated 12 to 13 years.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff warned immigrants yesterday against illegally crossing the border now, saying they would be barred from becoming legal residents. "That would be the absolute dumbest thing to do," he said.

Illegal immigrants would have from six months to a year to apply for probationary status. Once the border and work-site security requirements were in place, they could apply for a "Z visa."

The visa would be good for four years and could be renewed once. After eight years, applicants who qualified could begin applying for permanent resident status, or a green card, a step toward citizenship. After five years with a green card, the immigrants could apply for citizenship. Chertoff said that he expected about 15 percent to 20 percent of the 12 million illegal immigrants would be disqualified for committing crimes or other reasons.

Successful Z visa applicants would have to meet several criteria, including a good work history and, after the first four years, the ability to pass the English proficiency test given to those applying for citizenship. Heads of households would also have to return to their home country and re-enter legally.

Each applicant would pay a $1,000 fine and a $1,500 processing fee that could be paid in installments. Visa renewals would cost $500. Z visa holders who want to apply for a green card would have to pay an additional $4,000 fine.

Critics such as Byrd quickly branded the plan "amnesty." But Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez insisted it was not. "This is not an unconditional pardon," he said. "And, very importantly, there is no automatic path to citizenship."

Gutierrez and others were vague about the cost of the program, which would require large-scale construction, new data systems and high-tech identification cards. "Whatever that final number will be, it will be a lot less costly than to remain in a system that is socially unsustainable," he said.

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