WASHINGTON – Hoping to jump-start the debate on immigration, two lawmakers from opposite sides of the aisle introduced a bill Thursday that would prop up President Bush's call for comprehensive immigration reform and mirror a Senate bill that ultimately failed last year.
Reps. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., said their legislative package includes a guest worker program that would allow new workers and current qualifying "undocumented workers" to stay in the United States and work for up to six years. The bill would specify that immigrants couldn't take jobs from U.S. workers.
The Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy Act of 2007 allows those who qualify to get three-year visas that could be renewed for another three-year stay. Those seeking green cards, a precursor to citizenship, would have to leave and return legally through a port of entry.
"What is reform? What Congressman Flake and I have presented, and we're supporting today, this is reform," Gutierrez, speaking in Spanish, told a reporter at a Capitol Hill press conference.
The bill also aims to improve document procedures and stiffens penalties for immigrants who commit crimes while in the United States. It requires the Department of Homeland Security to beef up border security and surveillance prior to the start of the guest worker program.
"Our current immigration laws are at odds with reality," Flake said. "This bill addresses that problem by bolstering border security, increased interior enforcement, and creating a temporary worker program that's enforceable and fair."
The bill drew praise from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
"Our first responsibility to the American people is their safety," she said, adding, "We must enact immigration reform that is humane and honors our American tradition of being a nation of immigrants and a land of opportunity for all.
"It provides an excellent framework for Congress and the president to begin work on the vital task of immigration reform," Pelosi continued in a written statement.
The bill would address the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants currently living within the United States by allowing them to stay if they pay back taxes, learn English, have no criminal history and remain employed throughout the six years.
Flake said he believes the measure will win the support of one of the chief sponsors of last year's Senate effort, Sen. John McCain, a 2008 presidential candidate. The Boston Globe said McCain, and his prior partner on immigration reform, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., may be parting ways. The article suggests that their relationship has faltered as McCain attempts to prove his mettle with conservatives over immigration law enforcement.
Flake acknowledged that the bill needs to get done soon, before the 2008 presidential election gets in the way of passage.
"I think that obviously we need to get this done this year, because once the campaign gets started next year it really would be difficult," Flake said.
"I know that there will be good support in the Senate, and Senator McCain is committed to comprehensive immigration reform. I know a lot of the other presidential candidates are as well," he added.
McCain spokeswoman Melissa Shuffield downplayed the Globe report, saying her boss "is still working with Kennedy and still working with the White House and trying to do something comprehensive. ... He continues to work with all his colleagues."
"If they can come to a compromise together, then great," Shuffield said. She did not comment specifically on the Gutierrez-Flake measure.
Last year's immigration debate was characterized by deep divisions between conservative Republicans, who labeled the guest-worker program as amnesty for criminals, and moderate Republicans and Democrats who said it was a necessary part of a comprehensive program to stem the tide of illegal immigrants flooding the country.
The House in late 2005 passed a bill that sought to further criminalize illegal immigration. It differed strongly from the bill that passed last spring in the Senate, which contained a guest-worker program.