Immigration Proposal Would Increase Number Eligible to Apply for Citizenship

Legislation reportedly being developed ahead of Congress' return next week aims to expand the number of illegal immigrants that could become eligible for citizenship beyond the estimated 7 million given the opportunity in a bill that won Senate support earlier this year but fell in the House.

The bill would mark a significant shift in immigration strategy because it would abandon a requirement that would force illegal immigrants to leave the country before they can apply for U.S. citizenship, according to a report Tuesday in the New York Times. Changing that provision would make the initial number of immigrants eligible to apply for citizenship about 10 million or more.

The Times reports that, to gain citizenship, the immigrants would have to maintain employment, pay fines and back taxes and try to learn English. They also would have to pass a criminal or security background check..

The group working on the bill includes Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz., who pushed hard for this year's failed bill. The Democrat takeover has fueled hopes for new immigration reform.

President Bush has indicated he hopes to sign a comprehensive immigration bill in 2007, and while Bush signed a bill earlier this year calling for a 700-mile border fence, the fence — controversial because of doubts about its effectiveness and cost — is likely to be addressed again in the new bill the lawmakers will introduce in the new Congress.

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has been fairly neutral on the fence proposal, but he has taken a position strongly in defense of the guest worker program, which he said is one part of the so-called comprehensive solution to immigration problems.

"Only a temporary worker program will give us the ability to deal with that tremendous economic draw, which has time and again over the years defeated all the enforcement measures that the government has placed on the border to try to get security for this country," Chertoff said recently.

Some House Republicans, however, are not receptive to the temporary work program, labeling it as amnesty to lawbreakers. They fought against the issue in the midterm election, and while Republicans lost ground in Congress partly as a result, one senior Republican, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, said the draft legislation is a non-starter.