Politics

House Bill Would Overhaul Immigration Policy

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A bipartisan House proposal on immigration policy would solidify the status of current undocumented immigrants, revamp how businesses hire foreign workers and toughen border security. Critics complain the bill offers "amnesty" for those who entered the U.S. illegally.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

There's a new bipartisan plan in the House to overhaul immigration. It has a lot in common with the bill the Senate passed last year: stepped up security along the border and in the workplace, legalizing millions of immigrants who are here now, and a program to bring in hundreds of thousands of new foreign workers a year. The proposal has something else in common with last year's bill - critics say it amounts to amnesty.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Sponsors pointed to highly publicized recent immigration raids as proof the current system isn't working. Trying to enforce the law has meant disrupting businesses and breaking up families. Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat from Illinois, said an overhaul is overdue.

Representative LUIS GUTIERREZ (Democrat, Illinois): And rather than unfairly targeting Windex-wielding cleaning ladies, or wasting billions of dollars on failed strategies of the past, our bill offers real solutions to the challenges we face.

LUDDEN: The proposal would offer eventual citizenship to those who can prove they've been working here since June 2006. They'd have to pay back taxes, pay a fine, learn English, and at some point within six years leave the U.S. briefly and return with a visa. One advocate likens it to a baptism to cleanse them of their sin of being here illegally.

The proposal would also allow in 400,000 so-called new workers each year. They and their families too could eventually apply for citizenship. But Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, says all this would be phased in only as other security measures took effect.

Representative JEFF FLAKE (Republican, Arizona): This bill appropriately starts with border enforcement. Measures have been taken over the past few years to beef up our presence at the border. This bill ensures with trigger mechanisms that that progress continues.

LUDDEN: Workers would have a biometric ID card. U.S. businesses would have to use a computer system that checks employees' legal status. They'd also have to show they couldn't find an American for the job. And in a new measure, businesses could not use foreign workers if their area had an unemployment rate of nine percent or more among the least educated. This has not appeased some critics.

Ms. ROSEMARY JENKS (Numbers USA): You know, it's a massive cheap labor importation program.

LUDDEN: Rosemary Jenks is with Numbers USA, a group that wants lower immigration overall. She says there's no good way to monitor whether businesses really offer jobs to Americans first. And she finds the nine percent unemployment trigger too high.

Ms. JENKS: It's just obscene to me that, you know, we would do this to our poorest people. I mean these are the people who are struggling to put food on the table.

LUDDEN: And influential senators also called the House bill not acceptable. Republican Jeff Sessions of Alabama says it's possible to treat illegal immigrants compassionately without offering them citizenship. And he opposes what he calls the bill's dramatic increase in already existing legal immigration. Part of that is to speed up the process for millions who applied long ago to join family members here.

Karen Narasaki of the Asian-American Justice Center says that's key to stopping illegal immigration.

Ms. KAREN NARASAKI (Asian-American Justice Center): For immigrants from some countries it could take anywhere from ten to twenty years to be waiting to come. And so that forces them to make harsh choices about whether to obey the law.

LUDDEN: A similar bill in the Senate has been stalled while one of its cosponsors, presidential candidate John McCain, has said he's rethinking some measures. But a proposal's expected soon and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reed is said to be planning a full debate in May on this most contentious of issues.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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