2 GOP Lawmakers Offer Immigration Compromise

Times Staff Writer

Congressional Republicans and administration officials concerned about the impasse over immigration policy have launched aggressive efforts to bridge the divide between House and Senate legislation on the issue.

The approach includes promoting steps the White House has taken to secure the border -- an attempt to reassure conservatives who argue that enforcement measures must have priority -- while insisting, as President Bush does, that a successful overhaul of immigration laws must go beyond stacking more barbed wire along the U.S. frontier with Mexico and closing the job market for undocumented workers.

In one potentially key development Tuesday, two opponents of the Senate bill, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), unveiled a proposal meant to pave the way for a compromise.

Their plan would open a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, but only after U.S. borders were declared sufficiently secure. At that point, illegal immigrants would be required to leave the U.S. to be processed for work visas before returning to the country. After 17 years, they would be eligible for citizenship.

"We're concerned that there's not enough dialogue between the two houses to try to ... start the discussion," said Hutchison, who described the proposal as an attempt to combine the priorities of both chambers.

House Majority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) called the proposal "a step in the right direction," although he avoided commenting on the plan's citizenship provision.

The Hutchison-Pence proposal came a day after two conservative Republican senators from border states recommended that Bush request more than $3.5 billion in emergency funding for security provisions, including fences along the Mexico border. The two lawmakers, John Cornyn of Texas and John Kyl of Arizona, said the money request would be a "credibility-building measure."

"The logjam between the House and the Senate is not going to be broken until constituents ... are convinced that we mean business" on the enforcement front, Kyl said.

Cornyn predicted that passage of the funding request would make House members "more likely to support comprehensive immigration reform."

Administration officials have sought to raise comfort levels by emphasizing border security measures underway and the need for a sweeping restructuring of the immigration system.

David V. Aguilar, chief of the U.S. Border Patrol, on Tuesday presented initial results of the deployment of National Guard troops to the southern border, an order Bush issued in May.

Crediting the deterrent effect of having 4,500 Guard members supporting Border Patrol agents, Aguilar said the numbers of illegal immigrants captured by agents had fallen 45% since spring. He also said that compared with last year, there had been a 7% drop in immigrant deaths in the desert.

Meanwhile, Bush and Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez, an immigrant from Cuba, have used public appearances to emphasize the need to revamp the immigration system without hurting the economy.

"We must create a temporary worker program that provides foreign workers a legal and orderly way to come into the country and do jobs Americans aren't doing," Bush said Monday at a naturalization ceremony for wounded soldiers. "We must resolve the status of millions of illegal immigrants who are here already."

Gutierrez in recent weeks has been dispatched to several groups to deliver the same message.

The efforts come even as House Republican leaders continue to conduct public hearings designed to spotlight the enforcement-only immigration bill they passed in December while discrediting the more wide-ranging measure the Senate passed in May.

The conflict -- and the prospect that it might not be resolved -- has created an election-year dilemma for Republicans.

House GOP lawmakers argue that provisions in the Senate bill providing possible citizenship for most of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. amounts to a reward for lawbreaking.

Though that stance may energize core Republican voters, party strategists note that recent polls show that support for the GOP among Latinos is slipping. And many business groups that traditionally back Republicans have expressed concern about the economic effect of a crackdown on illegal immigration that does not include an avenue to citizenship for undocumented workers already in the country.

Against the backdrop of these clashing views, several GOP lawmakers -- including some, like Hutchison, who oppose the Senate bill -- say the party cannot afford to fail to pass legislation that addresses immigration.

"I think we have to come back [after Capitol Hill's August recess] with a pretty good idea of how we can solve this problem for the American people," Hutchison said.

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