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Senators craft immigration compromise

Times Staff Writer

After months of painstaking negotiations, a bipartisan group of senators forged an agreement Thursday on a bill that would allow most illegal immigrants now in the country to become citizens; reshape how legal immigrants are admitted; and create security measures that eventually would require all U.S. workers to prove their legal status.

The plan to legalize most of the nation’s estimated 12 million illegal immigrants and to create a temporary-worker program would not start until steps were completed to strengthen border security and workplace enforcement.

The bill calls for hiring about 6,000 additional Border Patrol officers, building hundreds of miles of fencing and vehicle barriers, and expanding surveillance with radar towers and aerial drones. Employers would have to electronically verify the legal status of new hires and would face stiff penalties for breaking the law.

The senators and Cabinet secretaries who negotiated the measure stressed that it needed to pass soon, before election politics made it impossible to tackle the controversial issue.

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“This is the last, best chance we’ll have as a Congress,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) at negotiators’ Capitol news conference. “If this somehow collapsed, it would be years before you could re-create this.”

The negotiators acknowledged that their compromise bill would provoke intense criticism from both ends of the political spectrum that could imperil it in the Senate and House.

“This plan isn’t perfect, but it’s a strong bill and it is a worthy solution,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the lead Democratic negotiator.

The intricately crafted bill brings President Bush a step closer to a domestic goal that he has championed since he took office. On Thursday, he hailed the deal as a “historic moment” and said he was “anxious to sign a comprehensive immigration bill as soon as I possibly can.”

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Dissenting voices from the Senate quickly signaled how difficult the president’s goal might be. “We should not give a blanket amnesty to illegal immigrants who want to flaunt the laws of this land,” Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) said.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), one of the negotiators, said he had “serious concerns” because some key details had yet to be drafted.

The Senate plans to take up the bill Monday, and the leadership aims to have a final vote before Memorial Day -- an ambitious goal in light of the contention last year over a Senate immigration bill. That bill passed the Senate but was never debated in the House.

The two bills have similar elements, but the new one makes far more substantial changes to the immigration system. It also offers more illegal immigrants a chance, as Kennedy put it, to come “out of the shadows and into the sunshine of America.”

The bill would immediately offer probationary legal status to illegal immigrants who were in the country before Jan. 1, 2007, and those who qualified would be able to gain citizenship within an estimated 12 to 13 years.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff on Thursday warned immigrants against illegally crossing the border now, saying they would be barred from becoming legal residents. “That would be the absolute dumbest thing to do,” he said.

Illegal immigrants would have six months to a year to apply for probationary status. Once the border and workplace security requirements were in place, they could apply for a “Z visa.”

The visa would be good for four years and could be renewed once. After eight years, applicants who qualified could begin applying for permanent resident status, or a green card, a step toward citizenship. After five years with a green card, the immigrants could then apply for citizenship. Chertoff said he expected that about 15% to 20% of the 12 million illegal immigrants would be disqualified, for committing crimes or for other reasons.

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Z visa applicants would have to meet several criteria, such as having a good work history and, after the first four years, passing the English proficiency test given to those applying for citizenship. Heads of household would have to return to their home country and reenter legally.

Each Z visa applicant would be subject to a $1,000 fine and a $1,500 processing fee, which could be paid in installments. Visa renewals would cost $500. Z visa holders who sought a green card would have to pay an additional $4,000 fine.

Critics like Byrd branded the plan “amnesty.” But Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez insisted it was not. “This is not an unconditional pardon,” Gutierrez said. “And, very importantly, there is no automatic path to citizenship.”

Gutierrez and others were vague about the cost of the program, which would require major construction, new data systems and high-tech identification cards. “Whatever that final number will be, it will be a lot less costly than to remain in a system that is socially unsustainable,” Gutierrez said.

The bipartisan bill also incorporates the Dream Act, which gives illegal immigrants who arrived as children a way to earn citizenship more quickly.

The bill also aims to clear within eight years the backlog of about 5 million foreigners who have applied to reunite with their families in the U.S. Some have waited 22 years or longer.

A temporary-worker program would be created for general labor needs, but in a concession to Republicans, it would not allow workers to become legal residents. “Temporary means temporary,” Chertoff said. “It’s not meant to be a kind of under-the-table path to a green card.”

Under the program, workers could come to the U.S. for three two-year periods with a one-year interval between each stay.

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A separate program, shepherded by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), would simplify the current AgJobs program for agricultural workers and would also allow those workers to achieve citizenship.

Chertoff estimated that it would take 18 months to put in place the border and workplace enforcement measures that would trigger the additional changes. “We have the tools which we need to scale up,” Chertoff said. “It’s going to take time and money, but we have the time and money to get there.”

The bill would boost the number of border agents to 18,000 from about 12,000. It would build 200 miles of vehicle barriers and 370 miles of fencing. And it would mandate that facilities be available to detain up to 27,500 illegal immigrants a day.

U.S. citizens would feel the impact of the workplace enforcement measure. All employers would be required to electronically verify the eligibility of new hires, and after three years, firms would have to verify the eligibility of all current employees.

Senate Republican aides said the Department of Homeland Security would make sure that a worker’s identity documents -- likely to include a tamper-proof Social Security card and possibly a revamped driver’s license -- are an exact photo match of information on file. The employer would also have to send in the worker’s Social Security number.

In a step that has raised privacy concerns among some lawmakers, the Homeland Security Department would be given expanded access to Social Security information and limited Internal Revenue Service data so that it could detect when numbers were fake or being used by more than one person.

The plan would also reconfigure future legal immigration, changing the “reunification” practice that gives priority to members of extended families. Under the bill, only members of “nuclear families,” defined as spouses and minor children, would be given preference. Other visas would be allocated on a merit-based point system that rewarded education; language ability; and skills, high-tech and low-tech, that are needed in the United States. Family ties to the U.S. would earn points for applicants as one factor among the many.

“That is a very big shift,” said Gutierrez.

The senators who presented the plan to U.S. and foreign reporters had negotiated for three months, several days a week. Their staff members, many of whom had worked overnight, looked on with heavy-lidded eyes, their arms loaded with briefing papers as thick as phone books.

Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, the lead GOP negotiator on the bill, spoke about the “horrible, horrible problem” illegal immigration posed for the nation and his state, and offered a warning about the necessary compromises ahead.

“It is very easy to sit on the sidelines and say, ‘No, I want it my way,’ ” he said.

“No one gets 100% of what they want, if you’re going to get something done.”

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nicole.gaouette@latimes.com

Times staff writer Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Overhaul bill

Under the proposal, illegal immigrants who are currently employed would be able to obtain four-year, renewable visas if they meet these criteria:

* Arrived in the U.S. before Jan. 1, 2007

* Submit an application and fingerprints

* Pay $5,000 in fees and

penalties

* Pass a background check

Source: U.S. Senate


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