The White House and key senators in both parties announced agreement Thursday on an immigration overhaul that would grant quick legal status to millions of illegal immigrants already in the US. It would also fortify the border.
President George W. Bush said the proposal would "help enforce our borders but equally importantly, it'll treat people with respect."
"This is a bill where people who live here in our country will be treated without amnesty but without animosity," Bush said.
The compromise came after weeks of closed-door negotiations that brought the most liberal Democrats and the most conservative Republicans on immigration issues together with Bush's Cabinet officers to produce a highly complex measure that carries heavy political consequences. It still faces a long legislative struggle and its passage by the Senate or House of Representatives is far from assured.
The plan would create a temporary worker program to bring new arrivals to the US and a separate program to cover agricultural workers. Skills and education level would for the first time be weighted more heavily than family connections in deciding whether immigrants should get permanent legal status. New high-tech employment verification measures would make sure that workers are here legally.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Democratic Party's lead negotiator on the deal, hailed it as "the best possible chance we will have in years to secure our borders and bring millions of people out of the shadows and into the sunshine of America."
Anticipating criticism from conservatives, Sen. Arlen Specter, a Republican, said, "It is not amnesty. This will restore the rule of law."
The accord sets the stage for what promises to be a bruising battle next week in the Senate.
Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid called the proposal a "starting point" for that debate and said the measure needs improvement.
"I have serious concerns about some aspects of this proposal, including the structure of the temporary worker program and undue limitations on family immigration," Reid said in a statement.
The breakthrough came when negotiators struck a bargain on a so-called "point system" that prioritizes immigrants' education and skill level over family connections in deciding how to award green cards for US residency.
The immigration issue also divides both parties in the House, which isn't expected to act unless the Senate passes a bill first.
The proposed agreement would allow illegal immigrants to come forward and obtain a "Z visa" and – after paying fees and a $5,000 (3,700 euros) fine – ultimately get on track for permanent residency, which could take between eight and 13 years. Heads of household would have to return to their home countries first.
They could come forward right away to claim a probationary card that would let them live and work legally in the US, but could not begin the path to permanent residency or citizenship until border security improvements and the high-tech worker identification program were completed.
A new temporary guest worker program would also have to wait until those so-called "triggers" had been activated.
Those workers would have to return home after work stints of two years, with little opportunity to gain permanent legal status or ever become US citizens. They could renew their guest worker visas twice, but would be required to leave for a year in between each time.
Democrats had pressed instead for guest workers to be permitted to stay and work indefinitely in the US.
In perhaps the most hotly debated change, the proposed plan would shift from an immigration system primarily weighted toward family ties toward one with preferences for people with advanced degrees and sophisticated skills. Republicans have long sought such revisions, which they say are needed to end "chain migration" that harms the economy, while some Democrats and liberal groups say it is an unfair system that rips families apart.