WASHINGTON – A bipartisan group of Senate lawmakers and the White House struck an immigration reform deal Thursday that would grant legal status to the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in the United States and increase border and interior enforcement initiatives.
The plan would establish a temporary worker program for new arrivals to the United States with a separate program for agricultural workers. The bill also would include provisions for new technology to ensure against immigration document fraud.
Supporters of the arrangement urged their congressional colleagues and the American public to support the bill as a whole even though strong objection may be felt toward its individual parts.
"All of you know that in the legislative process, no one gets 100 percent of what they want, if you're going to get something done," Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. said, speaking to reporters shortly after the deal was announced.
"From my perspective, it's not perfect, but it represents the best opportunity that we have in a bipartisan way to do something about this problem. And if we had not gotten together as Republicans and Democrats to develop this bipartisan consensus, we can be assured that there would not be a bill passed this year, and probably not next year," Kyl said.
Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., who is credited with being the driving force behind the negotiations, said differences aside, "I believe we owe it to the American people to stop talking about immigration and start acting."
The dealmakers, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a 2008 White House hopeful, stressed that their bill would offer strong border enforcement and interior enforcement and send a signal to U.S. employers "that the practice of hiring illegal workers will no longer be tolerated."
The compromise came after weeks of painstaking closed-door negotiations that brought the most liberal Democrats and the most conservative Republicans together with President Bush's Cabinet officials to produce a highly complex measure that could carry heavy political consequences.
The White House was clearly on board with the plan.
"I congratulate members of the Senate, both political parties, who decided it was time to work together to come up with a comprehensive immigration bill that addresses a major problem facing our country," President Bush said Thursday afternoon from the South Lawn of the White House.
"Immigration is a tough issue for a lot of Americans. The agreement reached today is one that will help enforce our borders, but equally importantly, it will treat people with respect. This is a bill where people who live here in our country will be treated without amnesty, but without animosity," Bush said.
Bush said he hoped the Senate and House would both fall in line and agree on a bill reflecting the plan, adding, "I really am anxious to sign a comprehensive immigration bill as soon as I possibly can. Today we took a good step toward that direction."
And speaking earlier, alongside senator on Capitol Hill, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said, "This is a bill that is strong on the border, tough on enforcement of the interior, fair with respect to those to those who are here, and realistic. It is an honest solution to a problem that has bedeviled this country for decades."
But as the senators alluded to harsh criticism facing the bill, even before it was presented in its entirety, other lawmakers began expressed their dismay with the plan.
"This plan rewards the lawbreakers and punishes those who have patiently waited their turn to become an American citizen. I will work tirelessly to make sure that this proposal does not pass the House of Representatives," Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, said in a prepared statement.
Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., issued a statement saying he is opposed to the guest worker program, saying it would bring millions of new immigrants, taking jobs away from Americans workers, and "The last thing they need now is to have an inflow of millions of more immigrants competing for their jobs at substandard wages," he said.
The draft bill "gives a path out of the shadows and toward legal status for those who are currently here" illegally, said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. She said opponents should not let "the perfect be the enemy of the good."
The Senate is expected to take up the legislation next week. The proposed agreement is several-hundred pages and contains a wide array of provisions to satisfy partisan concerns.
The plan would allow illegal immigrants to come forward and obtain a "Z visa" and — after paying fees and a $5,000 fine — ultimately get on track for permanent residency, which could take between eight and 13 years. Heads of household would have to return to their home countries first.
Heads of household could come forward right away to claim a probationary card that would let them live and work legally in the U.S., but could not begin the path to permanent residency or citizenship until border security improvements and the high-tech worker identification program were completed.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., declared that the bill "is not amnesty. This will restore the rule of law."
"When the objections are raised as to amnesty, the question is returned, what more can be done with these 12 million undocumented immigrants? What more hurdles can be placed to be sure that we do the maximum to avoid the charge of amnesty? And we are still open for suggestions. But the consequences of not moving to a solution on this issue is we have anarchy. We have uncontrolled borders," Specter said.
Workers would have to return home after job stints of two years, with little opportunity to gain permanent legal status or ever become U.S. citizens. They could renew their guest worker visas twice, but would be required to leave for a year in between each time.
Democrats had pressed instead for guest workers to be permitted to stay and work indefinitely in the U.S.
In perhaps the most hotly debated turn, the proposed plan would shift from an immigration system primarily weighted toward family ties toward a "point system" that prioritizes preferences for people with advanced degrees and sophisticated skills. Republicans have long sought such revisions, which they say are needed to end "chain migration" that harms the economy, while some Democrats and liberal groups say it's an unfair system that rips families apart.
Family connections alone would no longer be enough to qualify for a green card — except for spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens. New limits would apply to U.S. citizens seeking to bring foreign-born parents into the country.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.