The Senate has postponed a vote on its controversial immigration bill to June in order to have fuller debate. Opposition is widespread from unions, activists, businesses, and others. In the meantime, floor debate resumes today with dozens of amendments expected to be proposed.
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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.
We will have plenty of time to consider just how America's immigration laws might change. The White House and congressional leaders agreed last week on a plan, but there's enough skepticism that the Senate has agreed to debate the bill into June.
In a moment, we'll hear one the skeptics, Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama. We begin with NPR's Jennifer Ludden. Good morning.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: How widespread is the opposition to this bill?
LUDDEN: Widespread and growing every day, it seems. Business groups, unions, immigrant advocates, liberals, conservatives have all come out not liking various parts of this. What you have, what lawmakers call this grand bargain, is really a trade-off. It's a fairly generous legalization for the 12 million illegal immigrants in this country now in exchange for some limits on who can come in the future.
So you've got conservatives saying it's amnesty for those here now, and you've got some liberals worried that the limits in the future are too drastic. And everyone is saying it's so complex, they're really struggling to understand the implications here.
MONTAGNE: It certainly does have a quite few moving parts. Let's look at one of the more controversial ones, this guest worker program. How would that work?
LUDDEN: Well, it would call for 400,000 to 600,000 low skilled workers to come to the country every year. And by the way, one of the first amendments would cut that in half, and others plan to try and eliminate it all together. But whatever the number, Republican lawmakers who crafted this program wanted to make sure this was a truly temporary program, that these workers are not going to put down roots and stay. So here's what they come with, a six-year total that a worker could come and work in the U.S., but only two years at a time with a year's break in between. All right, you can see how business would really not like that. It's very disruptive.
What's more, the workers would not be able to bring their families unless they could prove they had health insurance for them and were making 150 percent above the poverty rate. Now, if they did bring their families, they'd be punished. The families could only be here for two years and the worker could then only come for two two-year periods instead of three. Even supporters of the program are wondering if this is going to be workable, and critics call it just cruel. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said it would just create a permanent underclass.
MONTAGNE: And the plan changes who could come here from the tradition that's been in setup over the last few decades.
LUDDEN: For four decades, we've had a very family-based system. Two-thirds of the visas - green cards were for those with relatives here. There would be a new system, a point system, to bring in more people based on their jobs skills, although it would just be still about third of the overall green cards. But you'd have points for, say, a graduate degree, fluency in English, if you are between 25 and 39, if you had skills in an area where we have worker shortages. Supporters say we need this to compete in the global economy. And some say bluntly, we really don't want so many low-wage workers here to be a drain in their old age.
Republican Jeff Sessions of Alabama yesterday said, look, the U.S. needs more immigrants who will pay more in taxes than they will take in social services. Now critics say this is inherently unfair if you just don't happen to be born in an English-speaking country. And some worry quite openly it's an attempt to limit migration of Latinos, who've been the biggest recent immigrant group taking a lot of the low-wage jobs.
MONTAGNE: Now, lawmakers have emphasized that security measures would have to be in place before the 12 million illegal immigrants here now would get permanent status, and what are those measures?
LUDDEN: Basically, you would have to have up to 18,000 Border Patrol agents. That's up from now almost 14,000, and that's a pretty big increase in a short time. We'd have to build 300 more miles of fencing on top of the 70 miles that are there now, some other high tech border measures. And then a key, a workplace enforcement system, a computer check program where businesses would check the legal status of their new hires. They're supposed to start doing that in 18 months. That's a very short timeframe. A lot less time than experts have said is really needed to get this up and going. So, again, we have this question of how could this really work.
MONTAGNE: Okay, NPR's Jennifer Ludden. Thanks very much.
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U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-AZ), left, shakes hands with Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) as Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff looks on during a news conference to announce a compromise on immigration legislation between the White House and the Senate.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
The proposed immigration overhaul announced last week by the White House and a bipartisan group of senators has something for everyone to love — or hate. The proposal, which offers legal status to most of the nation's 12 million illegal immigrants and also toughens border security, has drawn mixed reactions. Here, a look at the major interest groups and what they've said about the bill:
For the proposal. America's growers have long complained that a shortage of low-wage workers has meant that tons of fruits and vegetables have gone unpicked. Some 20 percent to 30 percent of California's peach harvest was lost last year because of a lack of pickers, according to the California Farm Bureau Federation. Farmers also saw losses on plums, nectarines and other crops, racking up losses estimated to be in the tens of millions of dollars. "We're looking at the failure of farms and small businesses," says Craig Regelbrugge, co-chairman of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform.
What growers like about the proposed immigration overhaul is that it includes a pilot program for legalizing agricultural workers. Farm hands who have worked in the U.S. for at least 150 days in the past two years would be able to legalize their immigration status. The number of workers would be capped at 1.5 million.
Divided support. Traditionally, unions have argued that illegal immigrants take away jobs from Americans and drive down wages for all workers in the country. Big unions, such as the AFL-CIO, support the amnesty provision in the bill but are adamantly opposed to guest-worker programs, which they claim create a "disenfranchised underclass of workers." So they'll be fighting against the compromise proposal. But the labor movement is divided. Two influential unions — the Service Employees International Union and Unite Here, which represents hotel and garment industry workers — count many immigrants among their members, and they're likely to support elements in the proposed overhaul.
Divided support. The country's major employers helped shape the compromise legislation, but they're not happy with the result. They worry that it won't solve the coming shortage of workers, especially low-skilled ones. The new point system, they say, would favor more highly skilled workers. Yet the Labor Department estimates that 37 percent of all new jobs in the next decade will be filled by people with a high school education or less. Of the 10 occupations expected to see the largest job growth, only two require a college degree. Employers also complain that the proposed legislation requires them to check an electronic database to determine a worker's immigration status. Susan R. Meisinger, president of the Society for Human Resource Management, which represents 215,000 executives, called the proposed system "unworkable."
On the other hand, technology companies such as Intel, Motorola and Hewlett-Packard have been pushing to boost the number of high-skill workers allowed to enter the U.S. The proposal would do just that, increasing the annual cap for temporary work visas, known as H-1Bs, from 65,000 to 115,000. High-tech firms would also like to see those workers get their green cards sooner. Currently, that process can take as long as five years — and it's not clear whether the new proposal would speed up that process. "What we are very concerned about is creating a new backlog on top of an existing one," says Robert Hoffman, spokesman for Oracle, in an interview with BusinessWeek magazine.
Divided support. The Mexican government has spent years lobbying the U.S. for a comprehensive immigration plan that would allow more people to work legally in the United States. A spokesman cautiously welcomes the new proposal, calling it an "opportunity." But others in Mexico expressed concern that it doesn't let enough Mexicans enter the United States legally to work, and makes it difficult for those who have entered illegally to change their status.
The Catholic Church
For the proposal, with reservations. The Catholic Church has no immediate stake in the immigration debate, but it has advocated for a "just and comprehensive" immigration overhaul. At least one church, in Chicago, has granted sanctuary to an illegal immigrant facing deportation, and other churches across the country say they plan to do the same.
The church called the proposed program a "step in the right direction" but expressed "significant reservations." Church officials are particularly concerned that it will place severe restrictions on the number of family members immigrants can sponsor for visas. "We are very concerned about provisions that could lead to separating families and disrupting family life," said Bishop Gerald R. Barnes of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Divided support. The self-described guardians of the U.S.-Mexico border have long called for beefing up patrols of the border, and the new proposal does just that. It calls for 18,000 new Border Patrol agents, 370 miles of fencing and other measures designed to keep illegal immigrants from entering the country. But the Minutemen are worried about provisions that would eventually grant citizenship to millions of illegal workers. "It is repulsive and insulting that our government would promote any form of amnesty for overtly illegal conduct," said the group's executive director, Al Garza.