WASHINGTON – Left for dead a week ago, legislation to strengthen border security while bestowing legal status on millions of illegal immigrants is showing signs of life. President Bush said on Friday it's time for Congress to act.
"Each day our nation fails to act, the problem only grows worse," the president said at the National Hispanic Prayer Breakfast. "I will continue to work closely with members of both parties, to get past our differences, and pass a bill I can sign this year."
Senate leaders announced plans Thursday night to revive the White House-backed measure as early as next week, although neither Majority Leader Harry Reid nor his GOP counterpart, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, made any predictions the bill ultimately would pass.
Instead, they issued a statement that said in its entirety: "We met this evening with several of the senators involved in the immigration bill negotiations. Based on that discussion, the immigration bill will return to the Senate floor after completion" of sweeping energy legislation that has occupied the Senate this week.
There was no immediate reaction from the bill's numerous Senate critics, who have consistently attacked the legislation as conferring amnesty on the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the country.
Bush, at the prayer breakfast, said, "We must meet our moral obligation to treat newcomers with decency and show compassion to the vulnerable and exploited, because we're called to answer both the demands of justice and the call for mercy.
"Most Americans agree on these principles," the president said. "And now it's time for our elected leaders in Congress to act."
The immigration legislation's revival represented at least an interim victory for Bush, who returned home from Europe earlier in the week and plunged into a campaign to rescue his top domestic priority.
On Tuesday, the president made a rare visit to the Capitol to ask Republican senators to give the bill a second chance. Two days later, responding to a request from pivotal GOP senators, he threw his support behind $4.4 billion in immediate funding for "securing our borders and enforcing our laws at the work site." As drafted, the legislation called for the money to become available over a period of several years.
Under a plan that key lawmakers presented to Reid and McConnell, Republicans and Democrats each will have 10-12 opportunities to amend the measure, with the hope that they will then combine to provide the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster by die-hard opponents.
Officials said the Bush-backed plan for accelerated funding would be among the changes to be voted on. So, too, a proposal by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, to toughen a requirement for illegal immigrants to return to their home country before gaining legal status.
But in a gauge of the complexity of the rescue effort, officials said the Senate's decision last week to terminate a temporary worker program after five years would not be subject to change before a vote on final passage. Many of the bill's strongest supporters opposed the five-year provision.
Also to be protected from immediate change is a provision giving law enforcement agencies access to personal information that immigrants provide on their applications for legal status.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the confidentiality of the discussions.
The bill was sidetracked last week after it gained just 45 of the 60 votes needed to advance. Republicans accounted for only seven of the 45 votes, and Reid said, "We'll move on to immigration when they have their own act together."
The bill includes measures designed to seal the border to future illegal immigrants, while cracking down on the hiring of workers who are in the country unlawfully.
But the provisions relating to the legal fate of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants has drawn the most controversy.
The bill allows illegal immigrants who were in the country as of Jan. 1, 2007, to come forward, pay fees and fines, pass a background check and receive an indefinitely renewable four-year Z visa to live and work legally in the U.S.
Ultimately, holders of Z visas could qualify for citizenship if they learn English and hold down jobs. Heads of households would have to return to their home countries, whether or not they sought a green card bestowing permanent legal resident status.
The bill also creates a new employment-based point system for new immigrants to qualify for green cards based on their education and skill level, and eliminates or limits visa preferences for family members of U.S. citizens and permanent legal residents.