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Congress Tackles the Issue of a Guest Worker Program

May 23, 2007

In the first battle on the U.S. Senate floor over a draft immigration reform package, an amendment to kill a controversial temporary worker program was voted down Tuesday, though another amendment that would cut the program in half is expected to be approved. 

As a sign of the deep fissures in the country over immigration, Senators debated the amendment introduced by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) for hours before the 64-31 vote to defeat it, with voices growing hoarse and charts and other props used to illustrate each side's case. 

The foreign worker program, which would provide between 400,000 and 600,000  "Y-visas" meant to fill long-vacant jobs in several industries, is one of three major prongs of the proposed bill that would overhaul the nation's immigration system for the first time since the 1986 amnesty. 

Before the temporary worker program goes into effect, tougher border security benchmarks must be met.  In addition, employers will face increased penalties for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants and will be required to process new hires through an employment eligibility verification system. 

Dorgan and other Democrats accused employers who support the program of wanting to cut labor costs by driving down wages.  On the other hand, Republicans and the plan's architects defended it, saying the Y-visas would help fill labor shortages in restaurants, hotels, construction and other industries. 

Yet, even the business community is split over the program, with some high-tech industries saying it wouldn't give them the flexibility they need to recruit workers with specific skills.  Farmers, restaurants and other low-skill industries generally support the proposal. 

With such division, however, leaders in both parties said they could live with an amendment to be introduced by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) that would cut the number of Y-visas to 200,000 foreign workers. 

As that debate continues, Senators on Tuesday were preparing a host of other amendments that would tilt the rest of the reform package in their favor. 

Republican conservatives are working to increase security measures that would make it more difficult for illegal immigrants to gain U.S. citizenship as part of a proposed Z-visa program.  That program, triggered by border security and workplace enforcement measures, would apply to anyone in the country after January 2007, with heads of households required to apply for citizenship from their country of origin after $5,000 in fees. 

Democrats, meanwhile, are tweaking provisions in a proposed point system for legal immigration that would make it easier for relatives of permanent residents and U.S. citizens who are outside of the country to enter into the system.  The proposed point system would weigh education and job skills over family ties for more than a third of future immigrants. 

As the rest of the country digests the draft proposal that was brokered behind closed doors last week, legislators have been bombarded with phone calls and e-mails from their constituents. 

A sign of the reform bill's political volatility could be seen in the vote over Sen. Dorgan's amendment to kill the temporary worker program. 

Three of the four Senators running for president, – Barack Obama (D-IL), Christopher J. Dodd (D-CT) and John McCain (R-AZ), were absent for the vote.  Hilary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) voted in favor of eliminating the foreign worker program.