by Alex Meneses Miyashita
The Senate began debating immigration, while a tentative agreement was reached this week between Republican and Democratic lawmakers.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) said May 9 that if an agreement was not reached by May 14, the chamber would take Up legislation which passed the Senate last year as a starting point for the debate.
The bill Reid is bringing to the floor passed the Senate with 62 votes in the 109th Congress, including those of 23 Republicans.
Sponsored by Sens. Mel Martínez (R-Fla.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), it included border security and interior enforcement provisions, as well as a guest worker program and a three-tiered path to legalization for undocumented immigrants.
Reid said the bill was “imperfect” but that it provided a good point to start debate as it passed “overwhelmingly” last year. He added a new compromise bill will be voted on if it’s finalized within the two weeks allotted for debate, refusing requests by Republican lawmakers to give negotiators more time. We don’t have more time,” Reid said.
Legislators from both parties in the Senate, including its three Hispanic members, and Bush Administration officials, including Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutiérrez, have been meeting for several weeks trying to pin down a proposal.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said last week negotiators were nearing “a grand agreement.” While Republicans and Democrats are expressing hope they will reach one, indications as to if or when it will happen remain Unclear.
“We’re not there yet,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.). “There is a great deal of additional work still to be done.”
According to Sen. Robert Menéndez (D-N.J.), “A large part of the problem in getting an agreement so far this year has been the Administration’s proposal which acted as a marker in these negotiations.”
The White House proposal has been criticized by several Hispanic and immigrant advocates.
The plan includes border enforcement “triggers” that need to be fulfilled In order to address other aspects of reform, such as granting a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants.
It sets the costs of three year temporary visas for undocumented immigrants wishing to earn a path to citizenship at $3,500, plus an additional $8~000 for permanent residency. The time to obtain a green card could take as long as 13 years.
In addition’ the plan scales back family-based visas and requires foreign workers in a new program to return to their home countries after some time’ offering no path to citizenship.
“From the minute we saw this proposal it became clear that they were no longer where they were last year on this issue,” Menéndez said. “In essence, their plan moved far to the right.”
He added, “Evidently, the White House convinced itself that it must have the support of certain Republican senators who opposed and worked to defeat last year’s bipartisan bill.”
A key negotiator is Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who has opposed granting undocumented immigrants and temporary foreign workers a path to permanent residency.
Frank Sharry’ director of the National Immigration Forum, said the most contentious issues seem to be the future of family visas and guest workers.
“The reason it is so complicated is that the Republicans are putting on the table a whole new way to approach the future of legal immigration’ both temporary and permanent, and they’re trying to fi gure out how to make that work,” he said. “Republicans have said that temporary means temporary, while Democrats insist that we shouldn’t be creating a bracero program.”
Menéndez said that the fact that “no one has walked away from these negotiations” is a hopeful sign’ but he and other Democrats are urging President Bush to start adding more pressure to achieve comprehensive reform legislation.
“If he doesn’t step in quickly,” Menéndez said, “this process is going to fall apart.”