Washington: Leading US senators reached an agreement on 17 May 2007 on an immigration overhaul that would fortify US borders and grant lawful status to millions of illegal immigrants, a move that could lead to a major legislative victory for President George W. Bush.
The agreement sets the stage for what is expected to be a passionate Senate debate over the proposal, which would give an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants legal status, create a temporary worker program and establish a new merit-based system for future immigrants.
“The agreement we’ve just reached is the best possible chance we will have in years to secure our borders, bring millions of people out of the shadows and into the sunshine of America,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat who helped lead the bipartisan talks that included Sen. Jon Kyl and administration officials.
Immigration is a complex, hot-button issue that has divided US political parties in a way that has made it difficult to pass reform legislation. Hundreds of thousands of Latinos and other immigrants rallied as recently as 1 May 2007, to demand amnesty for illegal immigrants.
The Senate bipartisan compromise will put illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship after a probationary period and they would have to pay stiffer fines than called for in last year’s bill.
The senators reached agreement after marathon talks. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, has set aside next week for the Senate to debate the legislation and several amendments are expected. The House is expected to take up its own version of immigration reform later this year.
DEMOCRATIC RESERVATIONS, BUSH SUPPORT
Reid issued a statement saying he had “serious concerns” about the temporary worker program and proposed new limits on family immigration. “We need to improve the bill as it moves through the legislative process,” he said.
Bush embraced the Senate breakthrough.
“I really am anxious to sign a comprehensive immigration bill as soon as we possibly can. Today we took a good step in that direction,” he said.
The legislation would create a temporary worker program that would allow workers from Mexico and other countries to work for two years and then require them to go home before they could return. At least 4,00,000 visas could be issued per year under the programme.
A temporary worker would be allowed three two-year work periods, but their time in the United States would help them earn points toward seeking permanent status. Kennedy said the worker program includes strong labour protections.
The legislation also includes tough border security and workplace enforcement measures that would have to be in effect before the temporary worker program is allowed to go forward.
The proposal would limit family-based migration to immediate family members and establish a merit-based system by which future migrants could earn points for skills, education, understanding of English and family ties. Kennedy said the merit system would include low-skilled workers needed in the United States as well as highly skilled workers.
Some immigrant groups called the compromise a first step, but made clear they would like to see some changes.
“The package is generous for those who are already here and those who have waited patiently to come legally,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of the pro-immigrant National Immigration Forum.
“How the deal treats immigrant families and workers coming in the future is where the biggest problem lies,” he said.