Ins and Outs of the Immigration Bill

Sens. Ted Kennedy and Arlen Specter i i

hide captionSen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA), left, speaks during a news conference about the immigration compromise as Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) looks on.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Sens. Ted Kennedy and Arlen Specter

Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA), left, speaks during a news conference about the immigration compromise as Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) looks on.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The immigration bill shaping up in the Senate would mark a drastic change in four decades of immigration law. The proposal resembles laws in Canada and Australia. Critics are warning of potential pitfalls.

The compromise, by senators from both parties and the White House, would grant legal status to about 12 million illegal immigrants now in the country. But it would put that on hold until new enforcement measures are implemented.

The measure also would allow 600,000 guest workers into the country legally. But they could not bring their families and they could only stay two years at a time, for a maximum of six years.

The bill would shift legal immigration from a system based primarily on keeping families together to one that would be based more on job skills.

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A compromise on immigration between the White House and Senate that would grant legal status to millions of undocumented workers faces an uncertain future when debate opens on the Senate floor Monday.

The backroom deal, agreed to in principle between key Democratic and Republican senators, will get intense scrutiny. Even if it survives, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has said she won't bring it for a vote unless President Bush can promise that 70 Republicans will back the measure.

Conservatives have labeled the bill an "amnesty" proposal because it provides for a guest worker program and paves the way to citizenship for about 12 million immigrants now living illegally in the United States. However, it also would mandate tougher border security and workplace enforcement.

"What part of illegal does the Senate not understand? Any plan that rewards illegal behavior is amnesty," said Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-CA), chairman of the Immigration Reform Caucus.

Complaints came from Democrats as well.

Democrats' major concerns include that the temporary worker program does not provide a path to permanent residence and new limits it would place on migration to reunite families.

"This amnesty plan is no fairy tale — it is a bad dream," Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia said.

But Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA), his party's lead negotiator on the deal, called it an example of the "politics of the possible."

Kennedy urged Congress to get behind the deal despite the political obstacles, acknowledging the critics but calling the effort "our last-gasp stand."

The plan came under immediate attack from lawmakers and interest groups as diverse as those that united to craft it. Their varying concerns and competing agendas — along with a challenging political environment — could be enough to unravel the painstakingly written agreement.

Two of the key players in the talks from both ends of the political spectrum, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), walked away from the deal before it was announced.

The deal would allow illegal immigrants to obtain a renewable "Z visa" that would let them stay in the U.S. indefinitely. After paying fees and fines totaling $5,000, they could begin the process for permanent residency, which could take between eight and 13 years. Heads of households would have to return to their home countries first.

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) has set a Memorial Day deadline for completing the measure, but it's unlikely the complex plan can be finished that quickly.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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