San Diego Union Tribune

May 12, 2005

Bills could grant legality to 10 million immigrants
Sweeping measures face an uphill fight

By Jerry Kammer

WASHINGTON – Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate will introduce legislation today that could grant legal status to an estimated 10 million to 12 million illegal immigrants now in the United States.

The bills, which would dwarf previous programs to provide legal status to foreign workers, would give illegal immigrants work permits and the opportunity to apply for permanent residence and eventually citizenship once they pay a fine and fees.

The legislation is certain to raise the temperature of a national debate already simmering over the Minuteman Project's volunteer border patrols and just-passed legislation to deny driver licenses to undocumented immigrants.

The legislation is expected to face an uphill fight in Congress. But it would be a landmark event if enacted.

Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz., will introduce the bill in the Senate. In the House, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., will team with Arizona Republicans Jeff Flake and Jim Kolbe to introduce the measure.

The sponsors have scheduled a news conference today to kick off a publicity campaign. It will be coordinated with immigrant advocates and church groups as well as business and farming organizations that want to stabilize their work forces.

Flake said the bills seek to bring immigration law in line with job markets that have become increasingly dependent on illegal immigrants because legal workers aren't filling the jobs.

"The bottom line is we're going to have a need for foreign workers in the foreseeable future," Flake said.

He said Congress has not provided federal officials with the tools to enforce the law because it doesn't want to cut off the flow of workers.

"We can make it legal through some mechanism or we can keep it illegal and keep on pretending we are going to enforce it," he said.

While details are still being negotiated, according to the Denver Post, major provisions include:

After a criminal background check and medical examination, most of the illegal immigrants now in the country would be allowed to apply for a new visa legalizing their status. They would have to pay $2,000 in fines and processing fees for having entered the country illegally. After six years, these workers and their families could apply for permanent residency.

A guest-worker program would allow employers to bring in 400,000 foreign workers in its first year. After that, the cap would be adjusted annually based on demand. The cap could change no more than a fixed percentage a year, sources said, and those workers could eventually apply to permanently reside in the United States.

A new system would be designed to require employers to electronically verify whether their workers are in the country legally and eligible to work. Fines for employers caught hiring illegal workers would double.

"Once a program is in place for employers to get workers, there's no excuse for them not to cooperate," Flake said. "You get a good program and you enforce the heck out of it."

But Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, said the program must provide enough foreign workers to meet labor needs and enough enforcement to win the support of a public increasingly skeptical about the government's ability to manage immigration.

"Any proposal will rise or fall on whether the legal channels are wide enough and the enforcement effective enough," Sharry said. "In the past it was, 'Let's keep legal channels small, but let's not enforce them too much.' "

The bills' advocates hope that the $2,000 fine will soften the angry reaction that has accompanied past amnesties, such as the sweeping 1986 measure that gave legal status to 2.7 million immigrants, most of them Mexican.

Almost 20 years later, the illegal immigrant population is expanding by nearly 500,000 people a year, according to Pew Hispanic Center demographer Jeffrey Passell.

In 1986, amnesty meant a green card for immigrants who were eligible, either because they had lived in the United States several years or – in a major concession to California farmers – because they had worked 90 days in the fields.

A fight to update that definition has already broken out.

"An amnesty is an unconditional pardon for a breach of law," Flake said.

"That's semantics," said Jack Martin of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which wants to clamp down on illegal immigration. "Any program that gives legal status to people who entered the country illegally or have stayed here illegally after being admitted is an amnesty."

Both sides will eagerly await reaction from President Bush, who last year proposed a program to provide temporary legal status for undocumented workers already here and to match "willing workers" from around the world with "willing employers."

Although the president said he rejected amnesty, he left open the possibility that some of the workers could get in line for a green card. That coveted document confers permanent residence status and the eventual opportunity to apply for citizenship.

Yesterday, White House spokeswoman Maria Tamburri responded carefully to a question about the Kennedy-McCain bill.

"The president will work with Congress on enacting legislation that is consistent with the principles he announced last year," she said.

Mark Krikorian, who directs the Center for Immigration Studies, said the White House was stunned at many conservatives' furious reaction at Bush's proposal.

Krikorian, whose organization favors restrictive immigration policies, predicted that Bush will wait to gauge public reaction to the legislation before announcing his position on it.

"There is already a match burning because of the Minuteman program," he said, referring to the volunteer patrols in Arizona near the Mexican border. "They should be afraid that this would throw gas on the fire."

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