After months of quiet negotiations, a historic immigration bill debuts in the Senate on Monday, where it faces a bruising floor fight – and even more uncertain prospects later this summer in the House.
At the heart of the deal is a tradeoff: legal status for some 12 million undocumented people and a new guest-worker program in exchange for sweeping new enforcement provisions – and the enforcement system must be in place first.
"The bill isn't exactly the way I would have written it, but it is a strong compromise and the best chance we will have to finally fix this broken system. The price of inaction is too high," said Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, in a statement on the eve of Monday's debate.
In a bid to keep their "grand bargain" intact, key negotiators, led by Senators Kennedy and Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona, say they will ban together to block amendments seen as hostile to the bill.
It's a tactic that key senators used to pass a sweeping energy bill 2005, after years of failed efforts at reform. Like energy policy, immigration is an issue that falls out across party lines – with local concerns, especially for representatives in the House, playing a decisive role.
On the House side, Democratic leaders say they will require that President Bush help win over at least 70 Republican votes – viewed by insiders as an impossibly high hurdle – before they will move legislation to the floor.
"While the bipartisan Senate agreement starts the process, I have serious concerns about some elements of this proposal – the bill must be improved in the Senate," said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, in a statement.
Within hours of the deal on Thursday, opposition broke out across party lines in both the House and Senate. The sharpest criticism came from lawmakers who see the proposed new law as a form of amnesty that rewards people who have broken the law, over those seeking to enter the US legally.
Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa says that he voted for a bill granting amnesty to undocumented workers in 1986, only to see illegal immigration continue to soar. He says he "learned that rewarding illegality only promotes illegality. I won't repeat the mistake of 1986 by voting for amnesty this year," he said. Sen. Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, called the measure to give automatic legal status to as many as 12 million illegal immigrants "a bad dream."
In the House, the proposed deal drives a wedge through both parties. Rep. Walter Jones (R) of North Carolina – one of only two Republicans who have supported House Democrats opposed to the Iraq war – said he is outraged by the immigration deal and will not support it because it includes amnesty.
Many House Democrats oppose the bill because it assigns less value to family reunification, in favor of job skills, as a factor in granting visas.
"Immigration reform should be about national security, should be about economic security, but it also has to be about family security," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D) of Illinois, speaking for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
In addition to improved border security and workplace enforcement, the deal includes a new temporary worker program to fill jobs that US employers say they can't fill with American workers. The guest-worker program starts with a cap of 400,000, but it can go up to 600,000 in the first year, based on "market fluctuations."
This 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 Senator Kyl, the lead GOP negotiator.
In addition, the cap for high-skilled workers admitted under the H-1B visa program will be increased from 65,000 to 115,000 annually – a flash point for lawmakers concerned about the impact of such a move on wages and job prospects for US high-tech workers.
In an early warning sign on this issue, Sens. Grassley and Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois, the No. 2 Democratic leader, called on the top nine foreign-based companies that use H-1B visas to disclose details about their workforce. Democratic staff members say they are expecting a floor fight on the program.
But 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. 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.
For many lawmakers, especially those facing voters in 2008, the Z visa could be the toughest vote of the year. On the presidential campaign trail, only Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona gave the proposed bill a clear thumbs up.
A GOP rival, Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, rushed a "secure borders" ad to television screens in New Hampshire and Iowa over the weekend, in which he disavowed amnesty. Several Democrats in the race criticized the impact of the proposed law on family reunification.
On Sunday, Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell said that Republicans would not block consideration of an immigration bill as they had threatened before a bipartisan deal was announced, but he said that the bill "can't possibly be completed before Memorial Day."
"This is a big, complicated piece of legislation," he said, in an appearance on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos" on Sunday.