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Immigration Proposal Debate in Senate

May 22, 2007

The U.S. Senate voted Monday to spend at least two weeks debating a bipartisan plan to overhaul the nation's immigration system, though a host of amendments planned by both Republicans and Democrats already threaten to scuttle the fragile compromise reached last week. 

Today, leaders are expected to grapple over the details of a proposed temporary worker program that would provide between 400,000 and 600,000 guest visas a year for foreign laborers wanting to fill long-vacant jobs in such industries as restaurants, food processing and retail. 

Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) is expected to introduce a proposal to reduce the cap on "Y-visas" to 200,000; an amount business groups say would be woefully inadequate.  Responding to concerns about diminishing wages and job losses for U.S. citizens, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), hopes to dismantle the program entirely. 

Labor groups and immigrant advocates, meanwhile, plan to lobby for more worker protections and for some sort of path to legalization for participants, who under the current proposal would be required to return home after a maximum of six years. 

The Y-visa holders would be allowed to work in the U.S. for two years, then would have to return home for a year before applying for another two-year Y-visa. 

After the first day of open scrutiny by the full Senate, architects of the compromise bill defended their proposal against a meteor storm of criticism, with Sen. John Kyl (R-Az), a lead author of the legislation, threatening to withdraw his support if any of the "meat" of the bill is altered. 

Besides the temporary worker program, leaders in both parties are signaling more confrontation over two other core components:  a point-system for legal immigration that weighs education and job skills over family ties to U.S. citizens, and a proposed program that would grant special "Z-visas" to the nation's estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants. 

Immigrant advocates charge that the point system undermines decades of family-based immigration that has nurtured assimilation and fostered family-owned businesses, helping to define the immigrant experience in many cities.  Proponents argue that the program would help foster more economic development and lower production costs in the U.S. 

The fight over Z-visas is expected to include an attempt by conservatives to limit the amount of times they can be renewed.  The current proposal allows the four-year visas to be renewed indefinitely.  Under the bill, Z-visa holders would also be required to pass background checks and pay a $1,000 fine.  Those wanting to get on track for U.S. citizenship would have to wait more than eight years, with heads of households required to return to their countries of origin to apply.  They would also have to show proficiency in English and pay a $4,000 fine, an amount also in dispute. 

Each of those components would be "triggered" by several other measures in the bill ensuring tighter border security and increased workplace enforcement, with the end of 2008, currently set as the target date.