San Diego Union Tribune

May 18, 2007

Break in immigration logjam

Bush welcomes Senate deal; critics equate it to amnesty


bullet In S.D., some wary; others welcome plan
bullet Immigration compromise

WASHINGTON – Leading Democratic and Republican senators have forged a sweeping immigration deal with the White House that they say will seal the nation's porous borders and provide hope of citizenship to millions of workers now in the United States illegally.

The agreement announced yesterday was hailed by President Bush as an “important first step toward a comprehensive immigration bill.”

It arrives less than a year after House Republicans deserted a Bush immigration push in droves, and a day after this year's effort appeared about to collapse.

LAURA EMBRY / Union-Tribune
The Senate deal announced yesterday would be a boon for growers and farmworkers in California and other states because it contains a provision that would give 1.5 million agricultural workers legalized immigration status.

“The agreement reached today is one that'll help enforce our borders, but equally importantly, it'll treat people with respect,” Bush said.

Even as the president saluted the deal, critics decried the compromise as an amnesty program that would reward illegal immigrants for breaking U.S. laws and do too little to plug the holes in the country's southern border. The complaints were the same as those used to kill the 2006 bill.

“They've probably done more with this announcement to encourage illegal immigration than anything that's been done in a long time,” said Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Carlsbad, who heads the conservative Immigration Reform caucus in the House.

Interviewed on MSNBC, Bilbray added a shot at Bush, stating, “I think, sadly, the president is so misguided on this thing that he has totally lost his direction on it.”

Rep. Duncan Hunter, who has made calls for tougher immigration policies a centerpiece of his long-shot presidential campaign, delivered a similar message during a meeting with Bush at the White House.

The Alpine Republican criticized the Senate compromise for its treatment of the border fence bill that Hunter pushed through Congress last year to fortify 854 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border. He said the new deal would reduce the barrier to only 370 miles and damage enforcement.

The compromise will undergo a critical test vote in the Senate on Monday – giving both sides only four days to rally their troops – and the architects of the deal joined the White House in urging critics to study the deal. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., specifically urged Hunter to temper his criticism, saying the compromise does not change the border fence “one iota.”

Only 24 hours before yesterday's announcement, many involved in the long process had begun to think they would not succeed in bridging the sizable chasm between conservatives focused on border security and law enforcement and liberals and Bush seeking better treatment and a “path to citizenship” for the millions already working in the country illegally.

At issue: immigration

A bipartisan group of senators agrees on a proposal for far-reaching changes in immigration law.

Skepticism: On the left, some criticized the deal as undermining families; on the right, some branded it as amnesty for illegal immigrants.

Debate: The proposal is likely to be the subject of an intense battle in the Senate next week and in the House this summer.

The negotiators had been meeting in private for more than two months, with Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy as the point man for Democrats and Kyl leading Republicans. Brokering the talks were Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez.

In the end, both sides compromised, driven in part by the belief that the country has demanded action and that this was the last chance to push through legislation while Bush is president.

Most notably, liberals agreed to end what conservatives call “chain migration” by accepting a fundamental change in the system that gives preference to family members of immigrants and instead give the advantage to immigrants who have higher education and job skills. Conservatives agreed to penalties for employers who hire illegal immigrants and a timetable that would permit the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants to get in line for eventual citizenship.

The agreement would:

Permit those here illegally to immediately obtain a probationary card allowing them to stay and work while they pursue a new “Z” visa. They would have to pay a $5,000 penalty and fees, and heads of households would have to return to their home country before getting the visa. Getting a green card could take eight to 13 years.

Establish “triggers” that must be met before a temporary-worker program is implemented. Those triggers include building 370 miles of border fence, amassing a Border Patrol force of 18,000 and a system to verify work eligibility.

Establish a new “Y” visa allowing immigrants to work here for up to six years as long as they return to their home country for a year every two years.

Establish a point system giving green cards according to a new merit-based system that gives less priority to family ties.

Require employers to verify the work eligibility of their workers and require workers to obtain more verifiable identification documents.

Declare that English is the official language of the United States.

Kennedy said there had been doubt that a compromise could be reached on such “an extremely complex, difficult, very emotional issue and where there's been a lot of divisions.” But he added that negotiators did not want to let the moment pass. “I've been around here long enough to know that opportunities like this don't come very often.”

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., called immigration “a third rail in American politics” and stressed to conservatives that the deal “is not amnesty. This will restore the rule of law. Without legislation, we will have anarchy.”

Kyl said he was driven by demands from the voters in Arizona for a fix. He was joined at a Senate news conference by another conservative Republican who opposed last year's bill but embraces this compromise, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., who said that only a bipartisan bill can succeed.

“I've never seen a more emotional, more sensitive, a more politically charged issue,” Chambliss said.

Notably, only one Democrat – Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California – joined Kennedy at the announcement. New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez, who had been a key negotiator on the agreement, rejected it, saying it would tear apart families.

Feinstein pleaded for support from Democrats, saying, “What we have tried to do here is listen to both sides . . . and try to come together in a bill that will not certainly please everyone, but a bill which will solve the basic problems.”

Feinstein also could claim a victory because the compromise includes a plum she hopes to deliver to growers and farmworkers in California and elsewhere.

Known as Agjobs, the provision would provide a path to citizenship for an estimated 1.5 million farm workers who agree to stay in the fields. Their spouses and children who stayed behind in their home countries would be allowed to join them.

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