House Lawmakers Look To Overhaul Immigration Law (Update 1)

House Lawmakers Look to Overhaul Immigration Law (Update1)

By Jay Newton-Small

March 22 (Bloomberg) — House lawmakers, seeking to jump- start immigration overhaul after Senate talks stalled, proposed a measure to create a guest-worker program, offer illegal migrants a path to citizenship and tighten border security.

The legislation's Democratic and Republican backers aim to pass the measure before the scheduled congressional August recess. Democratic leaders have identified immigration law as an area where they may agree with President George W. Bush. Last year, the Republican-controlled House thwarted Bush's drive to revamp immigration as members of his own party decried what they said was an amnesty program for illegal aliens.

“The bill we are discussing today is all about security — homeland security, family security and economic security,'' said Representative Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat and co- sponsor of the measure. “It is vital we work in a bipartisan fashion to tackle this issue.''

Gutierrez said Democrats will need “significant Republican support'' to get the measure through the House. Six Republicans cosponsored today's legislation.

“I believe it will pass,' said Representative Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican. “The stars are aligned correctly this year, and the administration has worked hard on this.''

Any of the estimated 12 million illegal aliens in the U.S. before June 2006 would have the opportunity to apply for a six- year work visa, which they would get after paying a $500 fine and submitting to criminal and terrorism background checks.

English, Civics Classes

During the six years, immigrants seeking a so-called green card to stay in the U.S. legally would have to take English and civics classes, pay an additional $1,500 fine and any back taxes, submit to criminal and security background checks and take a medical examination. Most would also have to leave the country once to reenter legally. Exceptions to this “touch- back'' provision would include those under age 21 or over 65.

The legislation puts all illegal immigrants in “back of the line'' behind those legally obtaining green cards from their home countries said Representative Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican and co-sponsor of the measure. Holders of green cards currently can apply for citizenship after five years.

Senator Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, said the provision “rightly would be called amnesty and would be very controversial.

“This appears to place those who came here in violation of the law a virtual automatic path to citizenship,'' Sessions told reporters in Washington.

Border Security

The touch-back provision wasn't originally included in last year's Senate immigration measure. Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, made headlines this week when he told reporters while campaigning in Iowa that he'd consider adding the provision to this year's Senate measure. McCain is running for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination.

The new legislation would increase border security by requiring visa applicants to give fingerprints, tighten penalties on immigrants for money-laundering, document fraud, alien smuggling, drunk driving, gang crimes and firearm offenses. It also would add 20 detention facilities to hold up as many as 20,000 illegals.

The measure establishes criminal penalties for employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants and sets up an employer verification system to certify workers as legal. It also sets up a guest worker program for as many as 400,000 people a year, a number higher than Senate Democrats envisioned last year.

Flexible Cap

Flake said that cap is flexible and will be based on market needs. Employers must certify they have done everything possible to fill vacancies with U.S. workers before they apply for guest workers. Guest workers would be granted three-year visas with the possibility of extending for an additional three years.

Sessions said anything more than one-year would cause him to vote against the measure if it got to the Senate.

“With their families here and their kids in school, after three to six years it becomes exceedingly difficult to ask them to leave,'' he said.

Immigration talks between McCain and Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts stalled this year after McCain rejected several labor provisions Kennedy suggested. Kennedy welcomed the House measure.

“I'm determined to make 2007 the year that we fix our broken system — and while we're still negotiating in the Senate, I'm optimistic that we will have legislation soon,'' Kennedy said in a statement.

Pressure to Act

The 2008 election adds pressure to get legislation through this year, Flake said. “Many presidential candidates support comprehensive immigration reform,'' he said.

The Senate will begin debate on immigration legislation in the last two weeks of May, said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. He called the Flake-Gutierrez legislation a “step forward.''

In the House, the Judiciary Committee plans hearings soon. Gutierrez said the measure must pass in the next 90 days or risk losing momentum as lawmakers consider must-pass appropriations legislation in the fall.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said the proposal “provides an excellent framework for Congress and the president to begin work on the vital task of immigration reform, collaboratively and on a bipartisan basis.''

Groups, including the National Restaurant Association, Service Employees International Union, National Immigration Forum and Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform as well as the Congressional Hispanic and Asia American Caucuses voiced support for the measure.

“The White House is working very aggressively behind the scenes,'' Frank Sharry, head of the National Immigration Forum, said in a conference call with reporters. There's a lot of activity in both chambers of Congress, “and for us that reflects a new atmosphere with the Democrats in control of the House,'' he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jay Newton-Small at

Last Updated: March 22, 2007 17:13 EDT