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Immigration Debate Continues

May 21, 2007

After weeks of tense backroom negotiations, Senate leaders and top Bush cabinet members have crafted a bipartisan immigration reform plan, launching another round of congressional debates after last year’s stalemate. 

As the full Senate considers the measure this week, analysts anticipate that forces across the political spectrum will begin picking apart the fragile compromise, which could lead to another impasse.

Among other plan elements, conservative Republicans disagree with a provision that would grant the nation’s 12 million undocumented immigrants with a special visa, the first step in a path toward legalization.  Democrats, meanwhile, are concerned about a new “point system” for legal immigration that would weigh one’s education and job skills over family connections to U.S. citizens. Both sides express reservations over a proposed temporary worker program they argue would create a permanent underclass of laborers, could take away jobs from working class Americans and might be ripe for abuse.

Below is a brief synopsis of the Senate compromise, along with elements of other proposals that have helped frame the negotiations.

Senate Compromise: Negotiated primarily by senators Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John Kyl (R-AZ) along with Bush cabinet members. The plan seeks to balance economic concerns with border security and sympathy for immigrants driven to the U.S. by necessity. Among its provisions:

  • Illegal immigrants can obtain probationary work papers immediately. After certain border security and workplace enforcement measures are met, they can pay a $5,000 fine and apply for a special “Z-visa” that could be renewed indefinitely. Z-visa holders must prove they have learned English after the fourth year. To apply for eventual citizenship, heads of households must return to their country of origin and begin the application process there.
  • For legal immigration, 380,000 visas a year would be awarded, based on a point system, with about 50 percent based on employment criteria, 25 percent based on education, 15 percent on English proficiency and 10 percent on family connections.
  • A temporary “Y-visa” would be created for between 400,000 and 600,000 guest workers per year, renewable after two years with a maximum six-year stay. No family members would be allowed to enter with holders.

Other pending proposals include the following:

H.R. 1645, known as the “STRIVE Act.” Co-sponsored by U.S. Reps. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) and Jeff Flake (R-AZ,) this is the House’s main framework for immigration reform, though it could be cast aside in favor of the Senate compromise. It combines tough border enforcement with (lesser) penalties against illegal immigrants, and would also:

  • Create an employment verification system, using biometric social security cards, first affecting very large companies and eventually including all employers.
  • Create “Conditional Nonimmigrant Status” for illegal immigrants in the country continuously since June 1, 2006, pending a $500 fee.
  • Create “Earned Citizenship” status, pending a $1,500 fee, English and civic requirements and criminal background. Applicants must apply from any port-of-entry outside the U.S.
  • Create a new Worker Program allowing temporary workers to remain in the U.S. for a maximum of six years. Employers must first attempt to hire any U.S. citizen who is qualified and able. The program has an initial cap of 400,000 visas and would be subject to market fluctuations later.
  • Increase the limit on H-1B visas for high-skilled workers to 180,000 from the current 65,000 limit.

Proposal by U.S. Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind) and U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX) Similar to the Senate Compromise in a number of respects, particularly in its call for securing the borders first. The proposal would:

  • Create a “Good Neighbor SAFE visa” as part of a temporary worker program managed by American-owned private employment agencies. Spouses and children would be eligible. All holders must learn English. Companies hiring temporary workers must first try hiring eligible U.S. citizens. After 12 years, visa holders can apply for an “X-Change visa” allowing them to stay another 17 years, without receiving welfare or other social services. After that period, the visa holder could apply for citizenship, but from country of origin.