Uncertain Fate For Immigration Bill

Uncertain fate for immigration bill

Hearst Newspapers
Originally published May 6, 2007

WASHINGTON // Advocates of liberalized immigration policies cheered when Democrats took over the House and the Senate this year, confident that the new congressional leadership would smooth the way for legislation creating a new temporary visa for foreigners and putting millions of undocumented workers on a path to citizenship.

But five months into the new Congress, lawmakers and lobbyists have grimly discovered that passing a broad immigration overhaul is tougher than they anticipated and are growing pessimistic about the outlook for any major changes this year.

Senate Democratic leaders have pledged to kick off debate on an immigration bill May 14. But with only a week left before that self-imposed deadline, Republicans, Democrats and two Cabinet secretaries are bickering over broad immigration ideas and have not produced a new bill.

“This is a tough problem, and it's going to be very hard to square the circle,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, which supports the effort. “I'm skeptical an agreement will be announced imminently.”

Last spring, the Republican-controlled Senate narrowly passed a measure that would have given many of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country a chance to work legally and become citizens. But House Republicans balked. Instead of considering the more liberal Senate version, the chamber passed legislation to crack down on illegal immigrants and put a fence along most of the U.S.-Mexico border. This year, Democratic leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, hope to get broad immigration legislation through the Senate as soon as possible. Activists on all sides of the issue recognize that if such a bill does not get through Congress this year, election-year politics will kill their chances in 2008.

Political angles are never far away. One example is the signal by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that she will only bring up immigration legislation if it has support from at least 60 Republicans, thus providing some political cover for Democrats who might be nervous about criticism that they are soft on illegal immigration.

Lawmakers and administration officials have been huddling for months, trying to design an immigration bill that will address illegal immigrants now in the United States, create some kind of legal channel for low-skilled foreign workers in the future and tighten up the system for employers to verify the work eligibility of potential employees.

At the same time, negotiators want the legislation to win broad, bipartisan support from both liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans; the latter are opposed to anything that looks like amnesty for illegal immigrants.

“You have some senators and the staff in the back room trying to figure out how to reform a broken immigration system that needs multiple fixes in multiple places and to design something that holds together and actually works when implemented,” Sharry said.

The latest proposals being hammered out by the bipartisan group of negotiators would create a new “Z” visa that would allow many illegal immigrants now in the U.S. to continue working in the country legally, and a new “H-2C” work visa for low-skilled foreigners to work in jobs that U.S. employers have trouble filling with Americans.

But the negotiators are having trouble finding middle ground on other issues including:

Whether and how to allow those who work under the Z visa to gain lawful permanent residency in the United States and become citizens. Administration officials originally pitched a plan stretching for at least 13 years that would require illegal immigrants who clear background checks and meet other conditions to pay penalties beginning at $8,000 before becoming citizens.

Whether to allow the foreign workers entering the U.S. on H-2C visas to bring family members with them. Negotiators are talking about allowing families to come as long as the entire group returns home every two years, instead of the three-year work stints envisioned for guest workers who come to the United States on their own.

Senators and administration officials also are debating proposals that would make big changes to long-standing immigration policies that place a priority on reunifying foreign families in the United States. To win support from conservatives concerned about “chain migration,” where one immigrant can help bring a chain of relatives to the U.S., the administration is pushing to make it harder for permanent residents to bring their siblings and possibly adult children to the country.

“The idea is to shift from purely family-based (immigration policies) to some other considerations, including family, but maybe not as extended a family as we've been doing,” said Sen. Mel Martinez, a Florida Republican who has been part of the talks.

Proposals to create new visas are likely to be contingent on the federal government's meeting border security benchmarks, such as the use of biometric screening systems and the deployment of unmanned aerial cameras. Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, is the leading proponent of such a “trigger,” which is popular among conservatives.

In its most extreme form, a “trigger” might require the federal government to certify that U.S. borders are secure, before any new visa rules take effect.