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Senate Considers Immigration Overhaul Bill

May 15, 2007 at 6:20 PM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Another try at immigration reform. NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman has that story.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: It’s important for our fellow citizens to understand comprehensive immigration reform is in the nation’s interest.

KWAME HOLMAN: For President Bush, signing an immigration bill would be considered one of the top domestic accomplishments of his administration.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), Senate Majority Leader: Some have said to me — in fact, I just left the Senate floor — “do it some other time, give us a little more time.” We don’t have other time.

KWAME HOLMAN: For congressional Democrats, in the majority for the first time in 12 years, an overhaul of immigration laws would support their promise of bipartisanship. But a deal on an immigration bill remains elusive, despite two months of intense negotiations between the White House and top Senate leaders and a midnight deadline set by Majority Leader Harry Reid.

SEN. HARRY REID: There has been some accomplishments, certainly a long ways from where we need to be, but some accomplishments.

Allowing guest workers to stay

KWAME HOLMAN: There does appear to be unanimity on several core issues, such as stronger border enforcement, employer verification systems, and a path to legal status for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants now in the country.

It likely would be an eight- to 13-year process toward permanent residency. During that time, immigrants would have to register with or return briefly to their original countries, formally apply for residency, and pay a fine.

But the insistence by both the president and Senate Democrats that particular provisions of a guest-worker program be included is threatening the support of several key Republicans.

President Bush wants to create Y visas for as many as 400,000 people a year, which would allow non-residents to work in the country for two to three years, leave, and then reapply. But several of the president's Republican allies want to block guest workers from reapplying for Y visas.

On the other hand, most Democrats and pro-immigrant activists argue that guest workers who wish to should be allowed to stay and seek legal status. Cecilia Munoz of the National Council of La Raza has been lobbying the White House and Congress.

CECILIA MUNOZ, National Council of La Raza: It's like asking people, "Come in and work, but please don't set down roots. Please don't become American, because we don't really want you for the long term."

What we're saying is, "Bring in workers to meet our economic needs, but invite them to put down roots." It's healthier for a society, if you encourage people to become Americans. There's no reason to say, "Because you're on the low scale, then we don't want you."

KWAME HOLMAN: In a concession to Republican conservatives who stress border enforcement over broader based reforms, White House negotiators have proposed establishing a merit system that would make it harder for immigrants to bring in siblings and adult children.

MARK KRIKORIAN, Center for Immigration Studies: Mass immigration is a problem for a modern society in a whole variety of ways.

KWAME HOLMAN: Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies has spent years imploring Congress to stem what he calls "chain immigration."

MARK KRIKORIAN: If you start taking in adult relatives, whether it's brothers and sisters, adult children that have their own families, you create new immigration connections that never end, whereas, if you limit family immigration to husbands, wives and little kids of American citizens, when the husband or the adopted baby or the wife comes in, that's the end of it.

The proposed merit system

KWAME HOLMAN: Under the president's proposed merit system, those who want to join family members in the United States first would be assessed on their job skills and education levels, something La Raza's Munoz called unfair.

CECILIA MUNOZ: Family needs to count. We don't want to say to the American people, "Total strangers who have no connection to the United States, but who have lots of education, are more welcome in this country than our own sons and daughters."

KWAME HOLMAN: If no agreement on an immigration bill is reached by tomorrow, Majority Leader Reid says he'll bring back last year's immigration bill, which died in the House of Representatives.

SEN. HARRY REID: How can we have anything that's more fair than taking a bill that overwhelmingly passed the Senate on a bipartisan basis and using that as the instrument to which we're going to allow amendments? It's going to be an open amendment process.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Senate Republicans aren't interested in bringing back last year's bill, saying they've added stronger provisions to this year's version, and may prevent Democrats from resurrecting the old one. Today Republican leader Mitch McConnell wouldn't speculate on that.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), Senate Minority Leader: Well, I'm not going to predict how we might feel tomorrow.

The consequences of a bill

KWAME HOLMAN: If Congress, despite all the interest and effort, once again fails to deliver an immigration reform bill, there will be political consequences, according to Cecilia Munoz.

CECILIA MUNOZ: If the Republicans are the ones to stand up and say, "There will be no bill this year because we want some of these radical proposals," I think politically they will take a trouncing, not just by Latinos, but by Americans who want a solution to this problem.

KWAME HOLMAN: Not so, says Mark Krikorian.

MARK KRIKORIAN: The best outcome is no bill at all in the Senate, because, I mean, really, with this Senate, with this House, and with this president, there is no possibility of a bill that would get signed that would actually be good.

KWAME HOLMAN: With such opposing sentiments, reaching consensus on comprehensive immigration reform could be the biggest domestic challenge Washington will face all year.