Senate, White House Seek Immigration Consensus

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The Senate and Bush administration officials are trying to reach consensus on a new immigration bill. Obstacles include who gets a work visa and how to create a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 12 million immigrants illegally in the United States.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning.

A bipartisan group of senators and officials from the Bush administration have been meeting behind closed doors for the last several weeks. They're trying to come up with an immigration bill that would, among other things, put in place a pathway to citizenship for some of the estimated 12 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally. Finding common ground, though, has proved difficult, as NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR: In the vexing debate over immigration in Congress there are some easy issues to address and more difficult ones. Hiring more border guards is easy, pretty much everyone on all sides of the debate agrees on the need for greater enforcement along the U.S. border with Mexico.

The idea of building more fences along the border also has support. But then come the issues that are less readily addressed, and it's these that the lawmakers and the administration officials who've been meeting behind closed doors for the past two months have been unable to solve.

Among the toughest is who gets a work visa. The Bush administration has proposed a point system for new immigrants, factoring in issues such as education, what kind of job the immigrant will have and for how long. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid says he's inclined to support such a program.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Majority Leader): What they're trying to do on this bill is exchange the present situation we have, the present law and regulations we have, and replace that with a point system. You get so many points for having a bachelor's degree, so many points for having a master's degree, and et cetera. I would consider the point system if, in fact, people get extra points for family reunification.

NAYLOR: And that brings up another sticky issue. The White House wants to use the points-based system and at the same time strictly limit which family members immigrants could bring into the country with them. That would be a big and controversial change from current law. Young children would be okay, but not those over 21. And few parents or extended family members would be allowed in.

Republican Senator Mel Martinez of Florida says negotiators are trying to hash it out.

Senator MEL MARTINEZ (Republican, Florida): What's permanent is permanent two years, three years; bring family, don't bring family, how much family, how many, you know.

NAYLOR: Last year's Senate bill also contained a path to citizenship, which conservative critics called amnesty. So the measure negotiators have been drafting this time takes a tougher approach. It would require illegal immigrants to pay a fine, pass a background check and learn English. Still up in the air is whether illegal immigrants would have to return home before qualifying for citizenship, and whether border enforcement measures would have to be in place before the path to citizenship part of the legislation kicked in.

Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott had some qualified optimism that all of the sticking points might be worked out.

Senator TRENT LOTT (Republican, Mississippi; Minority Whip): My attitude of everybody involved, I think, Republican and Democrat, administration and Congress, is to try to find enough agreements where you can go forward and move a bill through the Senate. But we're not going to let it go forward with a bad product.

NAYLOR: Late yesterday, Senate leader Reid decided to put off until next week a procedural vote on immigration previously set for today in order to give negotiators more time to reach a deal.

Brian Naylor, NPR News.

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