WASHINGTON – Senators writing a major immigration law overhaul bill moved Thursday toward accepting an approach under which illegal immigrants could stay in the United States while working toward permanent residence and eventual citizenship.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., stressed that his plan moving through the Senate Judiciary Committee would not constitute an amnesty, a policy rejected by the Bush administration and most Americans, according to polls. Kennedy said it would not give the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally any advantage over the 3 million living overseas while waiting for a decision on green card applications.
Committee Chairman Arlen Specter said the panel would consider the proposal put forward by Kennedy and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., when it reconvenes on March 27 after a weeklong recess.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., has made clear that immigration reform will be on the chamber's floor that week, regardless of whether the Judiciary Committee comes up with a comprehensive bill.
Congress, at the urging of President Bush, has made comprehensive immigration reform a top priority for this election-year session, pushing forward proposals combining immigration enforcement, a guest worker program and a policy toward people living in the country illegally.
The future treatment of undocumented immigrants, Kennedy said, "really is the heart and soul of this whole undertaking."
The McCain-Kennedy plan would allow those in the country illegally to obtain six-year nonimmigrant visas under which they could work in the country and travel outside the country. They would have to pay a $1,000 fine and undergo background checks.
After six years, the immigrant who pays back taxes, is learning English and pays an additional $1,000 fine can apply for a green card, or permanent residency.
Specter, R-Pa., said the committee would vote on a version of the McCain-Kennedy proposal on the 27th. There would also be a vote on the chief alternative, offered by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., that would give illegal immigrants up to five years to leave the country. These immigrants could apply from their home country to return, either as temporary workers or for permanent residency.
"Our intention is not to strand anyone outside the country," Kyl said. But he said that the McCain-Kennedy plan would give an illegal immigrant allowed to stay and work in the country a "huge advantage" over a person having to wait for years in his or her own country for a green card.
But with Democrats, and several Republicans, on the committee behind McCain-Kennedy, it appeared to have the edge.
Cornyn and Kennedy said they would work over the recess next week on the structure of a guest worker program, which would start out with 400,000 visas. The committee is also expected to take up a separate provision for temporary agriculture workers in preparation for debate on the floor.
Senators from both parties in the committee on Wednesday objected to voting on a bill before the panel reaches a consensus on guest workers. Several Republicans suggested that the Senate first deal with enforcement, and take up the guest worker issue later in the year.
"This is a very complicated bill," Specter said. "And I think we have to get it done right."
Bush, in a State of the Union address two years ago, urged Congress to create a worker program under which participants could gain legal status for a specific time and then be required to return home. It would not provide an automatic path to citizenship.
The House at the end of last year passed a bill that increases penalties for illegal immigration activities and requires employers to verify the legal status of their employees. But it did not address the guest worker issue, and critics argued that it was futile to try to close the border when demand for low-wage workers in this country remains so strong.
"We have a broken system," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said Wednesday. "It needs to be fixed and it needs to be addressed in a comprehensive way."