Congress Returns to Immigration Debate

A dispute over how heavily to weigh family ties in future immigration is re-emerging as the Senate resumes debate this week over legislation giving legal status to millions of unlawful immigrants.

Lawmakers, back from a weeklong break where the measure was a hot topic among their constituents, are under intense pressure to resolve lingering rifts over key elements and complete the bill.

The White House is pushing hard for passage of the measure, which President Bush has championed, through the kind of public relations and private lobbying efforts usually reserved for top priorities. First, though, senators must maneuver through a minefield of partisan and intraparty disagreements.

Democrats are pressing to give family connections higher priority in the measure, which for the first time evaluates future arrivals more on education, skills and job experience than on blood ties.

Republicans say that could interfere with the "grand bargain" that allowed a conservative-to-liberal alliance to cut the deal.

Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez warned that senators seeking changes to the measure should first ask themselves, "Will this make the bipartisan coalition crumble?"

Staff aides to the group negotiated through the congressional break with an eye toward avoiding such potentially fatal challenges.

The agreement melds conservatives' top objectives — tougher border security and an immigration system based more on economic needs than family connections — and that of liberals — the legalization of an estimated 12 million unlawful immigrants.

Key to the deal is an end to the practice of giving extended family members of U.S. citizens automatic preference for green cards — a major gripe of Republicans instrumental to the agreement, particularly Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona.

Instead, those who applied after May 1, 2005, would have to qualify through a new point system that rewards education, job qualifications and English proficiency but gives relatively little credit for family ties. Preferences for parents of U.S. citizens would also be strictly limited.

Several Democrats, led by Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, are proposing allowing the old, family based rules to apply to hundreds of thousands of people already waiting in line for green cards.

His effort has attracted the backing of three of the party's presidential hopefuls — Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, and Barack Obama of Illinois — and maverick GOP Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

Menendez wants to allow an estimated 833,000 who had applied for permanent legal status by the beginning of the year to get green cards based purely on their family connections. That would place them in line ahead of illegal immigrants, who would be eligible for legal status as long as they had been in the U.S. by the beginning of the year.

Administration officials defend the family limitations, and say it's practical to essentially send those who applied for legal status after May 2005 to the back of the line.

"You have to draw a line somewhere," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told reporters last week.

May 2005 was when Sens. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz., introduced an immigration overhaul that made it through the Senate last year only to die in the more conservative House.

"That was the point at which the world was put on notice that everything is going to change," he said.

Chertoff said green card applicants had already been told in 2004 that processing was on hold "for the foreseeable future."

Still, some Republicans are squeamish about defending the cutoff date, since it gives illegal immigrants an advantage over those who followed the law. One, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, has already said he would back Menendez's proposal.

One possibility, according to several officials close to the talks, is that Republicans would agree to loosen limits on family immigration if Democrats would agree to toughen a requirement that illegal immigrants seeking green cards go home before getting their chance at lawful status.

The bill mandates that illegal immigrants pay fines and fees and pass background checks before gaining the right to live and work legally in the U.S., and that heads of households seeking permanent legal status return home and pay more money before doing so.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, wants to make all illegal immigrants return home before getting lawful status, regardless of whether they are seeking a green card.

Democrats have considered requiring green card applicants to return home sooner, in exchange for the family related changes to the measure.