WASHINGTON – Republican senators uncertain of support for a proposal to allow illegal immigrants with jobs to remain in this country reached for a compromise late Monday to bolster votes for the measure.
Meeting into the evening in the office of Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., the lawmakers considered allowing illegal immigrants who have been in the country more than five years or other connections to the United States to remain legally and eventually seek citizenship.
"We're looking at the roots concept, and that is if they have been here more than five years," Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said after leaving the meeting. "That is a reasonable line as to people who have roots who ought to be treated differently. And if they have been here less then five years, they do not have roots to the same extent and can be treated differently, and that is what we're looking at."
The fate of those with less time in the country was unclear, but Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, suggested they might be asked to go to ports of entry, like the Texas border city of El Paso.
A similar proposal was made in Specter's committee for younger, unmarried and more recent illegal immigrants before they re-entered as authorized guest workers.
Specter said the proposals — mostly brought forward by Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. — would be spelled out to other Republicans on Tuesday morning.
"What we're trying to figure out is something which will be workable so 11 million undocumented will come forward, not create a fugitive class," he said.
The evening work was a sign of the pressure senators are feeling to get a bill passed by week's end. Hagel and Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., who also participated in the meeting, said they were looking for a bill that would appeal to a broader base and clear the Senate to begin negotiations with the House.
The House passed a tougher bill last year that would make being in the country illegally a felony.
The Senate began its second week of debate Monday on immigration, but had yet to resolve which of three major proposals it would move forward.
A bill approved by the Judiciary Committee — based on a proposal by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass. — would allow illegal immigrants in the United States before Jan. 7, 2004 and who have jobs, to work legally for an additional six years and eventually become citizens. The proposal has drawn opposition from some who consider it amnesty.
A proposal by Frist does not deal with illegal immigrants but boosts border enforcement and cracks down on employers who hire illegal workers.
A third bill proposed by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., would give illegal immigrants up to five years to leave the country before they can return legally to apply for permanent residence or be guest workers.
Earlier Monday, the Senate voted 91-1 in favor of a proposal by Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., to allow legal immigrants fluent in English to become U.S. citizens in four years rather than five.
An estimated 7.2 million legal permanent residents have lived in the United States long enough to become Americans, according to the Homeland Security Department's Citizenship and Immigration Services office. The wait to become an American is five years, three years if the legal permanent resident marries a U.S. citizen.
Alexander said a shorter naturalization wait might motivate more green card holders to seek U.S. citizenship.
"After we secure our borders, after we create a legal status for foreigners who work here and study here, the third indispensable step is to help prospective citizens become Americans," Alexander said.
His measure also up to $500 in vouchers to immigrants to pay for English courses and grants to groups that provide classes in U.S. history and civics, paid for by a portion of fees collected from applicants for naturalization, green cards and other immigration benefits.
President Bush is backing proposals for temporary work programs as a way "because that will relieve pressure off the border," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
"It will allow our Border Patrol agents to focus on the criminals and the terrorists, the smugglers and traffickers that are trying to come into this country for the wrong reasons."
Also Monday, the Senate voted 84-6 in favor of providing $50 million over five years for crime fighting by local law enforcement agencies within 100 miles of the U.S.-Mexican border. The House authorized $100 million over a year for local officials within 25 miles of the border.
Earlier, a Senate panel wrestled with how to reduce a backlog of immigration cases in federal appeals courts. Most of the appeals involve people seeking asylum or those who are refugees. The appeals have risen from 1,723 cases in 2000 to 12,349 in 2005.
Sen. Lamar Alexander's amendment is S1815.