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Changes to immigration bill possible

Times Staff Writer

Leading Republican senators on both sides of the immigration debate said Sunday that they would work together to modify the bipartisan legislation being considered in the Senate.

Initially, some conservative Republicans condemned what has been dubbed the “grand bargain” on immigration that emerged this month. The legislation would increase border security and workplace enforcement of immigration laws, long favored by Republicans, in exchange for delivering on the Democrats’ promise to offer legal status to an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants and to create guest worker programs.

The compromise, backed by President Bush, won support from conservative Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) but was criticized by another GOP conservative from a border state, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas.

Last week, Bush met with Hutchison and several other Republican opponents at the White House. On Sunday, Hutchison said she considered the legislation “better than the status quo.”

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After the Senate returns early next week from its Memorial Day recess, she said, she plans to propose changes that would allow her to vote for the bill.

“We can fix this,” Hutchison told “Fox News Sunday.”

Hutchison was joined on the show by Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, one of the Republicans who brokered the compromise.

“I think we can get enough Republican support in the Senate, and that will give it a boost in the House,” Specter said.

Hutchison said Republican opponents’ primary objection was what she described as an “amnesty portion” that would grant legal status to illegal immigrants who had arrived in the U.S. before Jan. 1, 2007, and who paid $5,000 over the next eight years for a temporary “Z visa.”

Immigrants with the visas would be required to return to their home countries -- “touch back,” in immigration parlance -- only if they wanted to apply for green cards, which signify legal permanent residence.

Hutchison said she and other opponents wanted illegal immigrants to touch back before they were granted the visas.

“That is what is causing the amnesty outcry -- that you can stay here, you will never have to go home, as long as you don’t want the permanent green card,” she said.

Specter said he was “prepared to negotiate” that provision, and he called Hutchison’s concession that the legislation was necessary “a breakthrough.”

“I’m prepared to listen to what Sen. Hutchison has to say, if we can find a modification which will get a stronger vote and get this plan through,” Specter said.

Hutchison said Senate Republicans were developing a version of the bill that could pass both chambers.

“This bill has to have some elements of change before it will be acceptable to the majority of Republicans in the Senate and the Republicans in the House,” she said. “I do think it can be done, but it’s not there yet.”

Even if the legislation is amended to Hutchison’s satisfaction, Republicans will probably face tough opposition from conservatives in the House.

Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon) denounced the plan Sunday, calling it “an absolute disaster from a national security standpoint” because it would give legal status to illegal immigrants and would scale back a proposed 700-mile security fence along the southern border, a project he championed.

“If we sign a second amnesty into place, you will have a wave of people, a stampede of people, from every country in the world coming into the United States illegally thinking they’re going to catch the third amnesty,” Hunter said on CNN’s “Late Edition.” Hunter is running for president.

Democrats may also be unwilling to accept a compromise tilted further to the right.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said Sunday that the legislation would undermine immigrant families with its green-card point system -- modeled on proposals from conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation -- that would favor immigrants’ skills and education over family ties in doling out the cards.

“In the long term, it tears families apart,” Menendez told ABC’s “This Week.”

Menendez said that he and Democratic presidential contenders Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut were working on amendments that would allow more immigrants to bring family members to the U.S. His vote, he said, may hinge on Republican support of those changes.

“I would hope,” Menendez said, “that the family values crowd put their votes where their values are.”

molly.hennessy-fiske@ latimes.com


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