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Senate passes immigration bill
WASHINGTON — The Senate, closing one round of acrimonious debate but setting the stage for another, passed legislation Thursday that would both tighten the borders to new immigrants and provide procedures for the 12 million foreigners already living in the U.S. illegally to gain legal status.
Immigration bill highlights
Deportation would be required for illegal immigrants convicted of a felony or three misdemeanors, no matter how long they have been in the U.S.
A guest worker program would be created for an estimated 1.5 million immigrant farm workers, who could earn legal permanent residency. There would be 200,000 new temporary "guest worker" visas a year.
A triple-layered fence 370 miles long and 500 miles of vehicle barrier would be built along the U.S.-Mexico border.
An additional 1,000 Border Patrol agents would be added for a total additional 3,000 agents this year, bringing the current force of 11,300 agents to 14,000 by 2011.
Employers and subcontractors would have 18 months to implement an electronic system to verify workers are legal and pay fines of $20,000 for each illegal worker hired; repeat offenders would be jailed.
A requirement that Americans re-entering the U.S. after cruises or short visits to Canada and Mexico show a passport or high-tech identification card would be delayed by 17 months, until June 1, 2009.
English would become the country's national language.
The number of H1-B visas for skilled workers would be increased from 65,000 to 115,000 annually, beginning in 2007. Immigrants with certain advanced degrees would not be subject to the caps, which could rise by 20 percent depending on labor-market demands.
The Associated Press
If enacted, it would trigger the biggest changes to U.S. immigration policy in decades, by strengthening border security, establishing a new guest-worker program and providing the means for millions of illegal immigrants to stay in the country and possibly become citizens.
The bill, which passed 62-36, now goes to a committee of House and Senate members, who will try to forge a compromise between the Senate legislation and a much more punitive bill approved by the House in December.
The task may prove impossible. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said this week that he would not schedule a compromise bill for floor action unless it commanded the support of a majority of the House's Republican majority.
"If Speaker Hastert insists on the 'majority of the majority,' " Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., said this week, then the immigration initiative is dead.
The product of a tenuous bipartisan coalition that faced tough conservative opposition, the measure calls for 370 miles of triple-layer fencing along the Mexican border, a complicated three-tier system for determining who can stay and who must leave the country, and more jail cells for those awaiting deportation. It would declare English the country's national language, a gesture that many advocates found insulting but accepted in hopes of helping millions of undocumented workers achieve legal status.
Democrats and Republicans alike said a House-Senate accord will be nearly impossible without the vigorous involvement of President Bush, who favors an approach similar to the Senate's. The White House has already begun lobbying efforts, but it faces resistance from more than 200 House Republicans seeking re-election this fall, many in districts where the sentiment against illegal immigrants runs high.
"This is the most far-reaching immigration reform in our history," Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., a leader of the Senate effort, said of its passage.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Kennedy's partner in the effort, said more than 11 million illegal immigrants "harvest our crops, tend our gardens, work in our restaurants and clean our houses. ... Some Americans believe we must find all these millions, round them up and send them back to the countries they came from. I don't know how you do that. And I don't know why you would want to."
The House in December passed a bill that dealt only with border and workplace enforcement. It would make illegal presence in the country a felony.
Following mass demonstrations by immigrants in several cities and complaints by Catholic officials — plus Bush's recent televised speech calling for a comprehensive approach that would include pathways to legal status for undocumented aliens — House GOP leaders signaled a willingness to modify their bill. But they said the Senate bill goes too far and would amount to "amnesty," a term that many dispute, for millions of foreigners who broke the law and jumped ahead of would-be immigrants waiting for legal entry.
Critics on the left and right call the bill — and especially its three-tier formulation — unworkable. The notion of apprehending and deporting 2 million illegal immigrants who have been in the United States less than two years defies logic, some say. They add that the task would be six times greater under the House proposal to empty the nation of all illegal immigrants.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company