REBECCA ROBERTS, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts.
On Monday, the Senate is expected to take up the contentious subject of immigration. The bill under consideration is a carefully crafted compromise by senators from both parties and the White House. The highlights: it would grant legal status to some 12 million illegal immigrants now in the country. But it would put that on hold until new enforcement measures are implemented.
It would allow 600,000 guest workers into the country legally, but they couldn't bring their families and they could only stay two years at a time for a maximum of six years. And it would shift legal immigration from a system based primarily on keeping families together to one that would be based more on job skills.
Joining us to talk about the bill, the politics ahead, and all things immigration are our resident immigration expert Jennifer Ludden who's here in the studio. And from Capitol Hill, our resident congressional expert Brian Naylor.
Jennifer, let's start with you. Gaining legal status sounds a lot like amnesty, but I understand we don't use that word.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: We don't use that word. Critics say, yes, it's amnesty. You can't dress it up any other way. Supporters of the bill say, look, it's not like we are forgetting and forgiving, those here now illegally would have to pay a 5,000-dollar fine. The head of the household would have to go back to the home country to apply for a visa at some point over an eight-year period.
And these immigrants would wait 8 to 13 years, essentially going to the back of the line while some four million people, who right now have applications pending and are waiting for their applications to be processed, they would be speeded through the system - a huge increase in the number of visas every year over eight years to clear the current backlog.
ROBERTS: So Brian, what are the prospects for the bill in the Senate?
BRIAN NAYLOR: I think the prospects in the Senate are fairly good. You have opponents - they're mostly on the Republican side. There are some Democrats who are opposed to the guest worker provision and also to the less family-based visa provisions. But by and large, in the Senate, I think that opposition will be muted. The major opposition to this will come later this summer when the bill gets to the House.
ROBERTS: And given that the people most in favor of this bill are not actual voters in the United States of America, isn't there more of a political liability in voting for a bill like this than there is in voting against it?
NAYLOR: I think that's probably so. The opponents of this bill are much more vocal. They're much more organized. They're calling their congresspeople and senators as we speak to register their opposition. Whereas the backers of the bill - some of them are organized, the Hispanic groups largely. But by and large, it's more of a, sort of, a silent majority, if you will, that don't have any problems with the idea of giving legal status to those immigrants already in the country.
ROBERTS: Jennifer, why are the guest worker program provision and this, sort of, shift from the family-oriented system to the employment-oriented system so controversial?
LUDDEN: Well, for the guest worker program, people in all sides hate this. They say, look, you're going to bring in a huge number of people here on a temporary basis. Two years, then you have to go back home for a year, then another two years, then back home. No one likes that. People say it's going create a temptation to revert back to illegal migration. The companies don't like it, they've got someone trained and up to speed on their job, and then they have to lose them again.
The workers are not going to be able to bring their family members with them. They're not going to like that. Family members may want to come join them illicitly and at the end of the six years working visa, there will be some tempted to just stay if they can find an employer willing to go along.
As for the shift from a family-oriented system to a more employment-based system - supporters say, look, we need to be competitive in the global economy. Other countries do this. We have to compete for the best minds in the world. Opponents say, look, a story of America is the story of families coming here as a big unit, and you need your extended family around you to better assimilate into society, and they say it is an economic boon. If you have a sister here to watch your children, then, you can go open a corner dry cleaning store, or a food store.
NAYLOR: And Rebecca, one of the things in Congress - the problems Democrats have with this bill is that guest worker provision, because they say it's going to bring in cheap labor to this country, and organized labor is opposed to this notion that several hundred thousand low-skilled, low-wage workers would be coming in to this country each year at a time, they say, wages are already depressed.
ROBERTS: So Brian, are we likely to see Democratic opposition in the Senate, or like Dianne Feinstein said, will they not let the perfect be the enemy of the good?
NAYLOR: Well, I think there will be some - again on the guest worker provisions Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota is going to try to offer an amendment that would strike that provision from the bill. There are other lawmakers - Senator Menendez from New Jersey has expressed opposition because of the family immigration issue. But, by and large, I think Democrats are probably going to be on board in the Senate. When it gets to the House, that's something else.
ROBERTS: Well, what's the outlook in the House?
NAYLOR: Well, the House is interesting. You know, last year, comprehensive immigration didn't even get taken up in the House because of Republican opposition to the idea of amnesty. This year, of course, Democrats are in control. But they're saying they want, from the White House, an assurance that they're going to get 60 or 70 or 80 House Republicans on board. That may not happen.
The House Republicans that remain are still very much opposed to this bill. And there are Democrats who are opposed because of amnesty. There are a lot of freshmen Democrats who ran in the Midwest where immigration is a big issue, who may well vote against this and against the liberal Democrats who are opposed to the family immigration proposal.
So it's hard to predict for sure how this is going to play out. But both sides - and that is the administration and the congressional Democratic leadership -would dearly like to have a victory. Democrats don't have a lot to show so far for their control of Congress. And of course, President Bush hasn't got a lot to show lately in his efforts to win bipartisan legislation.
So this may be an issue where both sides decide it's in their best political interests to work something out.
ROBERTS: We've been talking about this on a policy level, Jennifer, but how is it likely to affect, say, the average immigrant who may have overstayed a visa, for instance?
LUDDEN: It's a very strange moment right now. I mean, in a matter of months, if this bill were to pass, illegal immigrants here today could have the right to become a U.S. citizen down the road. In the meantime, I spoke with someone at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency and they say, of course, they're going to continue their stepped up enforcement efforts. They've been - had a dramatic rise in raids in workplaces, and so forth. They're going to continue doing that.
And we see right now immigrant groups preparing themselves. There are nonprofit groups passing out forms so that immigrant parents will sign and designate who should take custody of their children should they be arrested or be deported.
ROBERTS: NPR's Jennifer Ludden and Brian Naylor. Thank you both.
LUDDEN: Thank you.
NAYLOR: Thank you.
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