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Guest worker program survives

Times Staff Writer

A controversial bill that would overhaul the nation’s immigration system survived its first major test Tuesday, when the Senate overwhelmingly defeated a bid by two Democratic senators to eliminate a key component: a program to allow foreign workers into the country temporarily.

The amendment -- the first in the debate and the first of a number of attacks expected from liberal lawmakers -- sparked a contentious exchange over whether the temporary worker program would depress the wages of Americans.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who cosponsored the amendment with Sen. Byron L. Dorgan (D-N.D.), criticized the temporary worker program as “a way to keep our workers down, keep them weak and, in my view, destroy the middle class.”

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a principal author of the bill, countered that a temporary worker program would protect wages for American workers.

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“We are trying to take illegality out of the equation,” he said.

The debate laid bare disagreements among Democrats on immigration. Although many conservative Republican senators oppose the bill, most Democrats on the left are trying to strike a difficult balance. They hope to change the bill but think it could offer the best chance in years to address illegal immigration.

The intensity of the debate signaled steep challenges for the bipartisan group of senators who wrote the bill and were working to protect its core features, which they think are essential to draw enough votes to pass.

The vote was delayed by about 3 1/2 hours because Senate leaders wanted to be sure they had enough support. For several hours, they could only determine that it would be “very close,” a senior Democratic aide said.

In the end, the amendment was defeated, 64 to 31. Boxer and 28 other Democrats voted for it. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who helped draw up the bill, joined most Republicans in voting against the amendment.

Feinstein said she was not “a big fan” of the temporary worker program but felt bound by a pledge that the bipartisan coalition made to defend its bill. That coalition, dubbed the “grand bargainers” because of trade-offs at the heart of the bill, met in the afternoon to discuss how to kill the amendment.

The immigration overhaul bill would improve border security and workplace enforcement, raising fines for employers who hired illegally and requiring them to verify that employees were legally eligible to work.

It would also create a way for illegal immigrants to become citizens, provided that they paid fines and fees and fulfilled a number of other requirements. In exchange for that Democratic priority, Republicans were able to reduce the role of family reunification as a criterion for future immigration and create a point system that rewards education and skills.

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One of the bill’s more controversial provisions is the temporary worker program. It would allow as many as 600,000 foreign citizens to work three two-year stints with breaks in between. But it would not allow them to remain in the U.S. after that.

Business groups waded into Tuesday’s debate, an indication of how important they considered the temporary worker program.

The National Restaurant Assn., which opposed the amendment, notified lawmakers that it would be watching how they voted. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce wrote senators urging them to vote against the amendment. Both organizations think it is crucial to establish a legal way for certain businesses to deal with persistent labor shortages.

The chamber also urged a “no” vote on an amendment expected today from Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) that would cut the number of participants in the temporary worker program to 200,000 a year.

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Unions are split on the issue. Some say a temporary worker program would exploit immigrants and depress Americans’ wages. Others see immigrants as the backbone of their future membership and applaud worker programs, but insist that the bill allow participants to remain in the country.

Eliseo Medina with the Service Employees International Union said the bill would promote more illegal immigration unless it was amended to allow temporary workers to become citizens.

“If they are going to be limited in this way, many of them will simply overstay their visas and add themselves to a new undocumented pool,” he said.

Democrats hope to amend other parts of the bill that they dislike. Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) are set to unveil an amendment today that would target the shift away from a family-based immigration system. Their measure aims to lift limits in the bill that would prevent legal permanent residents from bringing their spouses and minor children to the U.S.

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For immigrant advocates, the move away from family reunification is one of the most problematic parts of the bill. But like many Democrats, they are working to change the legislation, not defeat it.

The bill would expedite applications filed before May 2005 to bring in family members, but those who applied afterward would have to enter through the new point system.

Immigrant advocates note that illegal immigrants in the country before Jan. 1 would not face such barriers and would be allowed to become citizens.

“People are concerned about the message,” said Karen Narasaki, director of the Asian American Justice Center. “If your family came over undocumented, they get to stay, but if they didn’t, they’ll be faced with a long separation.”

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Narasaki argued that the bill ignored the fact that many immigrants entered illegally to be with their families.

The loose coalition of civil rights, labor and immigrant groups that includes Narasaki and Medina has said its goal is to improve the bill.

But a coalition of Latino groups announced its opposition to the legislation Tuesday, citing its changes to family-based immigration and the temporary worker program.

Narasaki, asked whether the Asian American Justice Center would oppose the bill if Democrats were unable to change its reduced emphasis on family-based immigration, said: “I’m hoping I won’t have to take that question. I think it’s going to be tough for everyone.”

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nicole.gaouette@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

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Questions and answers

Why does Congress want to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws?

As Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) put it, the current system -- which has allowed about 12 million people to live in this country illegally -- “is broken and badly in need of a fix.” Most of the country seems to agree.

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Why is it taking so long for Congress to act?

Because there is no consensus on what the fix ought to be. Some advocate sealing the borders and shutting off the flow of illegal immigrants before anything else is done. Others, especially business interests, argue that the economy cannot function without a large, dependable flow of immigrant workers. Designed as a compromise, the Senate proposal has so many provisions packed into its 326 pages that most everyone can find something to dislike.

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What would the proposal do about the 12 million illegal immigrants already here?

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It would immediately grant probationary legal status to those who entered the country before Jan. 1, 2007. After meeting certain criteria -- such as paying fines, having a good work history and passing an English proficiency test -- those immigrants would be able to gain citizenship within an estimated 12 years.

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Would the proposal amount to amnesty for illegal immigrants?

By definition, amnesty means wiping the slate clean. The Senate proposal would offer people here illegally a chance to become legal, but would impose complicated requirements.

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Those who entered the U.S. before the Jan. 1 cutoff would be eligible for a special “Z visa” if they have a job and pay $5,000 in fees and penalties. Visa holders would then travel to their native countries, where they would pay an additional $4,000 penalty and apply for permanent U.S. residency. The spouse, elderly parents and minor children of a successful applicant could be granted permanent resident status.

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Is there a guest worker program to fill jobs that employers say they can’t find enough Americans to do?

There is. Workers who are matched with employers through an electronic database would get a two-year visa, renewable twice -- provided that workers spent at least a year in their native countries between each two-year stint in the U.S.

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Guest workers could be accompanied by spouses and children only if they were able to prove that their income exceeded the poverty rate by at least 50% and their family members had health insurance. If guest workers choose to bring their families, they would forfeit the right to additional two-year stints. Non-seasonal guest workers would be capped at 400,000, whereas seasonal farmworkers could enter in unlimited numbers.

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Would the Senate proposal make it harder for people to cross the border illegally?

It would, and this is the least controversial part of the proposal. The government would hire 6,000 Border Patrol agents, on top of the 12,000 now in place. Another 370 miles of fence would be built on the border with Mexico, along with 200 miles of vehicle barriers.

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The proposal mandates 27,500 detention or prison spaces be made available along the borders. And it calls for the deployment of four unmanned aircraft to patrol the southern border and the construction of 70 radar and camera towers.

Border Patrol agents would collect “biometric” data, such as fingerprints and eye prints, to verify the identity of border crossers. They would be allowed to cross-check identity documents with the Social Security Administration and the Internal Revenue Service.

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Historically, the rules governing quotas of legal immigrants have given priority to reuniting families. Would the Senate agreement make any changes?

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It would give greater emphasis to job specialties and less to family ties. Would-be immigrants currently can apply for a green card no matter their skills. The new system would be tilted toward more skilled workers. Applicants would get extra credit for education, fluency in English, math and science backgrounds, and other factors.

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What chance is there that such a complicated stew will become law?

The odds for passage of an immigration bill are probably better than last year, but it is far from a sure thing. The Senate got the ball rolling Monday by voting, 69 to 23, to debate the issue. Last year the Senate passed an immigration bill, only to have it die in the House -- which was then in Republican hands. Both the House and Senate are now controlled by Democrats. But opposition and support for this proposal cross party lines.

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Source: Times staff writer Joel Havemann


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