Even before the details of a sweeping immigration reform deal were released this week, lawmakers and "stakeholders" on all sides of the issue began carving out changes they say are needed for the bill to become law.
Immigration rights groups want to reverse measures that tilt preferences in the visa system toward merit, rather than family reunification. Some labor unions want to scuttle the vast new guest worker program. And conservatives are blasting a plan that opens the door to legal status to some 12 million people now in the country illegally.
But the breadth of the coalition backing this bill – and the political skills of its sponsors – will give this bill momentum, as it faces a Senate debate next week and a perilous passage through the House in July.
Sen. Lindsay Graham (R) of South Carolina, a key negotiator, predicted that support in the Senate "will be overwhelming, as long as the agreement holds together." A weary aide put it more bluntly: "Now, we're all about to become piñatas for our respective groups." [Editor's note: The original version misidentified Lindsay Graham's party.]
At the heart of the deal is a tradeoff: legal status for some 12 million undocumented people in exchange for sweeping new enforcement provisions – and the enforcement system must be in place first.
These border security benchmarks or "triggers," include 18,000 new border patrol agents, construction of 200 miles of vehicle barriers and 370 miles of fencing, 70 radar and camera towers along the US southern border with Mexico, and resources to detain up to 27,500 people per day – measures designed to help end the practice of "catch-and-release." In addition, the Secretary of Homeland Security must certify the existence of secure and effective identification documents to prevent unauthorized work.
The draft law provides that these benchmarks be met before most other features of the law, including a new guest worker program, can begin.
The proposed law also creates a new temporary worker program – Republicans emphasize the word "temporary" – to provide jobs that US employers are unable to fill. This Y-1 visa program starts with a cap of 400,000 guest workers, but it can go up to 600,000 in the first year, based on "market fluctuations." The Y visa numerical cap will be adjusted every fiscal year. Under this plan, temporary workers would have to leave after two years, but could reapply after a year out of the country. "Temporary means temporary," says Sen. Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona, the lead GOP negotiator.
In a bid to woo trade union support, the program requires that guest workers be paid "prevailing competitive wages," to avoid driving down the wages of American workers. AFL-CIO president John Sweeney says the proposed "massive" guest worker program "will allow employers to import hundreds of thousands of temporary workers every year to perform permanent jobs throughout the economy." In the end, it will drive down wages, benefits, and heath and safety standards for US workers, he says.
The law also stiffens penalties for gang violence, passport, visa, and immigration fraud – including marriage fraud – features that were in the immigration bill that passed the Senate in May 2006 by a vote of 63-36.
The proposed legislation also aims to clear in eight years a backlog in visas for family unification that will help an estimated 4 million families. After the backlog is cleared, the current employment-based green card system will be replaced by a merit-based points system that will favor skilled workers who speak English.
"The package is generous for those who are already here and those who have waited patiently to come legally. How the deal treats immigrant families and workers coming in the future is where the biggest problems lie," says Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigrant advocacy group in Washington. Mr. Sharry adds that activists will work to improve the bill on the Senate and House floors. "We are encouraged that the senators' negotiations have born fruit, but the fruit is not ripe," he says.
The most controversial element of the proposed law is the renewable "Z" nonimmigrant visa, which offers a path to legal status for some 12 million undocumented people now living in the country. The law anticipates three categories of Z visa: Z-1 for employed workers, Z-2 for the spouse or elderly parent of that worker, and Z-3 for the minor children of that worker. To be eligible for this visa, applicants must have been "illegally present within the US before January 1, 2007," Applicants must also pass a background check, remain employed, maintain a clean criminal record, pay a $5,000 fine and receive a counterfeit-proof biometric card to apply for a work visa. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the amount of the fine.]
Critics on both sides of the aisle call the new immigration plan amnesty. The proposed Senate bill "means compromising our nation's respect for the rule of law and embracing illegal aliens with open arms," says Rep. Walter Jones (R) of North Carolina. Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, calls the plan "a slap in the face to every immigrant who had to wait abroad to come to American shores, and to every immigrant who had to struggle and work to become a US citizen."
But senators involved in the negotiations say that the bill has been carefully crafted to pull support across the political spectrum, and that the deal can withstand a tough floor flght.
"Politics is the art of the possible, and the agreement we just reached is the best possible chance we will have in years to secure our borders, bring millions of people out of the shadows and into the sunshine of America," said Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, who led negotiations for the Democrats.