Arizona's Kyl Reflects on Immigration Compromise

On Monday, the Senate will begin debate on a still-evolving compromise bill proposing major changes to the nation's immigration laws. Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona broke with some fellow Republicans to help negotiate the compromise. He talks about the bill.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.

This weekend, President Bush is pushing to win congressional approval for his sweeping reform of the nation's immigration laws. Thursday, the administration worked out a deal with senators from both parties. The Senate will take up the compromise Monday. In his radio address today, the president acknowledged it will be a tough sell.

(Soundbite of radio address)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I realize that many hold strong convictions on this issue and reaching an agreement was not easy. I appreciate the efforts of senators who came together to craft this important legislation. This bill brings us closer to an immigration system that enforces our laws and upholds the great American tradition of welcoming those who share our values and our love of freedom.

ELLIOTT: The legislation would allow immigrants here illegally to legalize their status after paying a fine. It would also create a guest-worker program. But first, additional security measures must be in place - new stretches of border fence constructed and additional border patrols deployed.

One of the Republicans who helped craft this compromise is Arizona Senator Jon Kyl. He joins us from Phoenix. Welcome.

Senator JON KYL (Republican, Arizona): Thank you.

ELLIOTT: Senator Kyl, last year, you were adamantly against any path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. This bill would now allow them to eventually become citizens. What changed your mind here?

Sen. KYL: Nothing changed my mind. I remain opposed to automatic citizenship or an automatic path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. My dilemma was the following: Democrats now control the House and Senate; a bill was being written; the president was likely to sign a bill that was within certain boundaries, and I suspect they could have crafted one that he would have signed, that I still would have opposed.

And I have a choice to make. Do I stand on the sidelines and complain about it? Or do I get in a room and do my best to have it reflect the principles that my constituents want me to try to include in such legislation. And I chose the latter course. The bottom line for the Democrats was that people who are here illegally today needed, at some point, under some conditions, to be able to have the hope that they could become citizens. In order to get the things that we insisted on in the legislation, we had to concede that point.

ELLIOTT: What things did you want to have?

Sen. KYL: We had a couple of things that related directly to that automatic path to citizenship. And it's no longer automatic. There are a variety of things that they have to do, including applying for the green card from outside the country, the country of their origin, and also not getting ahead in line of anybody else, in addition to the fines and the other features.

Secondly, my constituents complained about the fact that if these illegal immigrants are allowed to become citizens, they will simply chain migrant all of their distant relatives into the country, which they can do under the law today. We have eliminated chain migration in the law for everybody forevermore.

And finally, just to mention one of the key things that we wanted to be sure, is that the temporary worker program that's established in the legislation is, indeed, temporary. In other words, people come here and they work for a couple of works and then they return home. There is no automatic green card for the temporary workers.

ELLIOTT: Now, I understand some business interests are not exactly pleased with the idea of a guest-worker program that caused people to work for two years, then go home for a year and then come back for two years because of the stability issue. Wouldn't this be a problem for, say, agri-business in Arizona?

Sen. KYL: No. As a matter of fact, I've been very closed to the agri-business folks here. I just spoke to the Agri-Business Council yesterday. What we've established here is a temporary worker program that you properly describe. Say, you could either have a seasonal worker who comes here for 10 months and then returns home for two years and then comes back again. Or, you can get a two-year visa, and then you have to go home for a year, and you can renew that twice.

It is true that many businesses would rather simply have a worker come here and stay here forever. That however would recreate the situation we have today, and what we wanted and what the Mexican government wanted was circularity. That is to say, workers coming from a country like Mexico to earn some money, learn a skill and then return back to their home country and apply that money and skill to make their own country better, not to set down a stake here in the United States.

ELLIOTT: Senator Kyl, this bill is a real break with American tradition, in a way, it will determine who can get on the path to citizenship. You get points for certain things, weight given to education, to English skills, to other high technical skills, and less important is being put on family ties. Aren't immigrants most needed, however, for unskilled work in this country?

Forty percent of farm workers are immigrants, for example. Twenty-seven percent of construction workers are immigrants.

Sen. KYL: In sheer volume, there are probably more unskilled workers than there are skilled workers. That's one of the reasons why we have a temporary work program. They will predominantly be peopled by the lesser skilled and lesser skilled, but they are only here to earn some money for their family back home and then they return home.

Our immigration laws have always recognized the importance of family. In fact, we have been unique in that regard and in about 70 percent of our visas were used by family migration rather than employment migration. Most of the countries in the world have that flipped. After this bill is over, it's going to be above 50-50. It will still be about 51 percent family.

ELLIOTT: Senator Cornyn of Texas, another border state, was a negotiator on this deal, but had second thoughts and now does not embrace it. You served as chairman of the Senate Republican Conference. You're in a leadership position. How are you going to bring him in and other fellow Republicans on this bill?

Sen. KYL: First of all, I'm not going to try to bring anybody. We will present all of the facts and members can make up their own minds and they each have their own constituency. And they need to do what they think is best within their own conscience.

Senator Cornyn, who you mentioned, is actually the vice chairman of the conference. And what he has said is that he wants to wait to see the language. And he's right. The language was only finished just a little before midnight last night. And it better reflect the agreement as I understand it, or I wouldn't support it. And if it doesn't accurately reflect the agreement, then I think you'll see a lot of people decide that they can't support it.

ELLIOTT: So senators will be spending this weekend going over that language?

Sen. KYL: Well, probably their staffs will, and then they'll show up Monday morning and say, okay, staff, what does it say?

ELLIOTT: Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, thank you for speaking with us.

Sen. KYL: You're very welcome. Thank you.

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