Skeptical Senate focuses on immigration – again

In a key vote, senators agree to reopen debate. But the fate of 27 amendments will determine whether the measure wins final passage.

A grand compromise on immigration is again before Congress, although the prospects for passage are as uncertain as ever.

In a key 64-to-35 vote, the Senate agreed to reopen debate on the stalled measure, which would strengthen border security while creating a pathway toward citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the United States.

The vote was a big lift for the bipartisan group of senators who had negotiated the compromise.

"It was a good vote – an indication that the American people want us to deal with this issue," said Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, the key Democratic negotiator. "Despite all the misrepresentation and distortion, this is a fair, tough piece of legislation."

Twenty-four Republicans joined 39 Democrats and one independent in Thursday's move – one more vote than supporters had expected. But no one expects the going to be easy because support is so tenuous.

For example: Jim Webb (D) of Virginia supported reviving the compromise, but has not committed to voting for the final bill. That will depend, he says, on whether the Senate approves his amendment, which would require evidence of community ties, such as owning a business or having children in school, before illegal immigrants would be given provisional visas to stay in the US.

The bill approved Thursday includes a measure for provisional visas – called "Z visas" – for illegal immigrants in the US as of Jan. 1, 2007, if they paid fees and fines and passed a background check. Eventually, they would get a path to citizenship after waiting in line, paying more fines, holding down jobs, and learning English. Heads of households would have to return to their home countries to apply for green cards.

The bill also creates two-year "Y visas" for up to 200,000 guest workers per year, which could be renewed twice, provided they returned to their home countries for a year between each stint.

The Y and Z visa programs would not take effect until security and enforcement triggers were met, including adding 20,000 border agents, 370 miles of fencing, 300 miles of vehicle barriers, and a new worker-verification system to prevent the hiring of illegal workers. The federal government would spend $4.4 billion immediately to implement the measures.

But key to passage of the bill is the fate of 27 amendments, which the Senate is taking up. Major ones include:

• A crackdown on people who remain after expiration of their visas, requiring that all illegal immigrant heads of household seeking lawful status return home as long as they meet a certain wealth threshold.

• A limit on legalization, which would only be extended to illegal immigrants who have been in the US four years or more.

• A requirement that all illegal immigrant heads of household return home within two years before they can gain any kind of lawful status.

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