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Senate nears immigration bill

Times Staff Writer

Senators negotiating a bipartisan immigration reform bill have settled on the details of a plan that would immediately grant legal status to all illegal immigrants currently in the United States.

The deal on “Z visas” for illegal immigrants is one of several issues where Democrats and Republicans have reached broad agreement.

But as senators emerged from what they had hoped would be a final round of negotiations Tuesday, they indicated that painstakingly slow progress would keep them from meeting the deadline set by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to begin debate on a bill today.

Late Tuesday, Reid agreed to push that deadline to Monday.

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“They tell me they’re 80% of the way,” Reid said in announcing the delay. “That’s fine, the other 20% is hard.”

The plan to award legal status to all illegal immigrants who meet certain qualifications would occur only after other “triggers” are met. These triggers would require that certain border security and work-site enforcement measures be in place before other aspects of the overhaul go forward.

The Z visa plan would start with the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States going on a probationary legal status. If the triggers are met -- a process that Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) estimated would take 18 months -- then illegal immigrants who qualify could get Z visas. Those who have committed felonies would not be eligible, Graham said, and all participants would have to pass security checks, pay a fine and a processing fee and pass an English proficiency test.

Z visa holders would be able to apply for legal permanent resident status, a step toward citizenship. But at some point, the heads of households with Z visas would have to return to his or her home country and then reenter the United States. They would have to take their Z visa to the U.S. Embassy or consulate and would be guaranteed reentry. The Z visa would include a photo and fingerprints, Graham said.

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Tuesday’s talks followed two months of negotiations between key senators and administration officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez.

“We’ve made a lot of progress,” said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). “There are a few issues outstanding. The staffs have worked around the clock.”

Reid had said that if the negotiators could not reach a compromise, he would start debate on a new version of the immigration bill that the Senate passed last year. Republicans say last year’s bill is no longer acceptable and had signaled that they may block it. With the new deadline, chances are better that the senators will be able to reach a deal.

Republicans sounded cautiously hopeful. “I remain optimistic that we’ll be able to put together a bill that can clear the Senate on a bipartisan basis, hopefully an overwhelmingly bipartisan basis,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Democrats were more measured. Reid cited “some areas of accomplishment,” but added that the two sides were “a long ways from where we need to be.”

Unresolved issues include the terms of a guest worker program for future immigrants. Republicans are adamant that any program that imports labor should be temporary and not allow participants to become citizens.

“There is grudging acquiescence that that’s the way it’s going to work,” Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) said of his Democratic colleagues.

Democrats, immigrant advocates and some unions argue that if temporary workers do not have the option of citizenship, the United States will create a permanent underclass.

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The senators also have to settle on the number of green cards to make available for legal immigrants who want to become permanent residents.

And they also will tackle a larger issue. From its formal beginnings, the U.S. immigration system has been based on family reunification. Republicans want to change that to a point-based system designed to serve the nation’s economic needs. Potential immigrants would be ranked on education and skills.

Senators said they were compromising by combining the family and point system, allocating points for those who have family already in the United States. “It’s not going to be all family, but there will be a family component,” Martinez said.

The two sides have come to agreement on the Dream Act, a provision that would allow young illegal immigrants to attend college at in-state tuition rates and eventually gain citizenship. Democrats and Republicans also agreed on a jobs program for the agriculture industry.

As the Senate struggled to move forward, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) announced that the House would take up immigration legislation in July, even if the Senate talks collapsed.

House leaders had previously insisted that the Senate move first on the issue.

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nicole.gaouette@latimes.com

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