Washington: House lawmakers, seeking to jump-start immigration overhaul after Senate talks stalled, proposed a measure to create a guest-worker programme, offer illegal migrants a path to citizenship and tighten border security.
The legislation’s Democratic and Republican backers aim to pass the measure before the scheduled congressional August recess. Democratic leaders have identified immigration law as an area where they may agree with President George W. Bush. Last year, the Republican-controlled House thwarted Bush’s drive to revamp immigration as members of his own party decried what they said was an amnesty programme for illegal aliens.
“The bill we are discussing today is all about security -- homeland security, family security and economic security,” said Representative Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat and co- sponsor of the measure. “It is vital we work in a bipartisan fashion to tackle this issue.”
Gutierrez said Democrats will need “significant Republican support” to get the measure through the House. Six Republicans cosponsored today’s legislation.
“I believe it will pass,’ said Representative Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican. “The stars are aligned correctly this year, and the administration has worked hard on this.”
The new measure would set more stringent requirements for earning citizenship than in a 1986 immigration overhaul measure, said Representative Mario Diaz-Balart, a Florida Republican.
Any of the estimated 12 million illegal aliens in the US before June 2006 would have the opportunity to apply for a six- year work visa, which they would get after paying a $500 fine and submitting to criminal and terrorism background checks.
During the six years, immigrants seeking a so-called green card to stay in the US legally would have to take English and civics classes, pay an additional $1,500 fine and any back taxes, submit to criminal and security background checks and take a medical examination. Most would also have to leave the country once to reenter legally. Exceptions to this “touch- back” provision would include those under age 21 or over 65.
The legislation puts all illegal immigrants in “back of the line” behind those legally obtaining green cards from their home countries said Representative Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican and co-sponsor of the measure. Holders of green cards currently can apply for citizenship after five years.
The touch-back provision, which requires illegal immigrants to leave the country to legalize their status in the US, wasn’t originally included in last year’s Senate immigration measure. Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, made headlines this week when he told reporters while campaigning in Iowa that he’d consider adding the provision to this year’s Senate measure. McCain is running for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination.
The new legislation would increase border security by requiring visa applicants to give fingerprints, tighten penalties on immigrants for money-laundering, document fraud, alien smuggling, drunk driving, gang crimes and firearm offenses. It also would add 20 detention facilities to hold up as many as 20,000 illegals.
The measure establishes criminal penalties for workers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants and sets up an employer verification system to certify workers as legal. It also sets up a guest worker programme for as many as 400,000 people a year, a number higher than Senate Democrats envisioned last year.
Flake said that cap is flexible and will be based on market needs. Employers must certify they have done everything possible to fill vacancies with US workers before they apply for guest workers. Guest workers would be granted three-year visas with the possibility of extending for an additional three years.
Immigration talks between McCain and Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts stalled this year after McCain rejected several labour provisions Kennedy suggested. Kennedy welcomed the House measure.
“I’m determined to make 2007 the year that we fix our broken system -- and while we’re still negotiating in the Senate, I’m optimistic that we will have legislation soon,” Kennedy said in a statement.
The 2008 election adds pressure to get legislation through this year, Flake said. “Many presidential candidates support comprehensive immigration reform,” he said.
The Senate will begin debate on immigration legislation in the last two weeks of May, said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. He called the Flake-Gutierrez legislation a “step forward”.