Immigration Deal Cheered, Questioned The White House and a bipartisan group of senators have reached a deal on a sweeping bill that moves Congress closer to passing a long-debated overhaul of immigration policy. But critics on both sides say they find parts of the bill unworkable and troubling.
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Immigration Deal Cheered, Questioned

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Immigration Deal Cheered, Questioned

Immigration Deal Cheered, Questioned

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. The White House and a bipartisan group of senators have reached a deal in a sweeping immigration bill. It would step up enforcement at the border and in workplaces while legalizing some 12 million foreign workers. The legislation puts Congress closer to passing an overhaul this year. Critics on both sides say they find parts of the bill unworkable and troubling.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Just last week, immigrant advocate Frank Sharry of the National Immigration Forum was betting that deep divisions in this emotional debate would prevent any deal. He was a bit giddy to have gotten it wrong.

Mr. FRANK SHARRY (Executive Director, National Immigration Forum): This is not a small accomplishment. Wow.

LUDDEN: Sherry calls the Senate bill an excellent start.

Mr. SHARRY: What's remarkable about the deal is who is a party to it. You have one of the most notable immigration hawks, John Kyl of Arizona, standing shoulder to shoulder with Ted Kennedy, the lion of the Senate. And look, they both had to make concessions.

LUDDEN: Senator Kennedy, the main Democratic sponsor, says the bill is not ideal. Illegal workers would have to pay a $5,000 fine, return to their home country to apply for a visa and wait 8 to 13 years to gain permanent status. But Kennedy says at least immigrant parents would no longer live in paranoia about being arrested and deported away from their U.S. citizen children.

Senator EDWARD KENNEDY (Democrat, Massachusetts): They're living in fear and they continue to work, but they know that tonight they go to bed and they're safe and secure and they know their children are safe and secure. I think it's breathtaking.

LUDDEN: But immigrant advocates say a major and controversial break from longtime policy would hurt families. The Senate bill would make it harder to bring in relatives like parents, siblings and adult children.

Instead, a new points system would favor applicants with things like higher education and fluency in English. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina says this change is overdue.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): America needs an immigration system that can compete for the best minds that exist in the world. The new system does it better than the old system.

LUDDEN: Another issue for both sides is a temporary worker program. The bill would admit some 400,000 foreigners a year, but they can only work a total of six years and only two years at a time, with long breaks in between. What's more, they could not bring their families with them.

Sonia Ramirez of the AFL-CIO says that would just foster the same illegal migration that's a problem now, and she says that would be bad for U.S. workers.

Ms. SONIA RAMIREZ (Legislative Representative, AFL-CIO): It would create a secondary class of workers that, you know, essentially would be willing to work at lower wages with less protections and would still continue to live in the shadows of society.

LUDDEN: Business groups also have concerns. Randel Johnson of the Chamber of Commerce says a lot of his clients are wary of the mandated computer program to check new hires' legal status.

Mr. RANDEL JOHNSON (Vice President for Labor, Immigration and Employee Benefits, U.S. Chamber of Commerce): We're going to be looking for things like who's going to pay for the new employer verification system; are there checks son the system to make sure it's going to be working; is there going to be liability protections from being sued by an employee if the system incorrectly says that employee is not authorized to work.

LUDDEN: Lawmakers were at pains to say this bill is not an amnesty for illegal immigrants, but many who want to restrict immigration are not convinced.

Mr. MARK KRIKORIAN (Executive Director, Center for Immigration Studies): This is just a replay of the same bait-and-switch that we saw in the 1986 amnesty more than 20 years ago.

LUDDEN: Mark Krikorian is with the Center for Immigration Studies. He says the bill states that immigrants won't gain legal status until after certain enforcement measures are in place, but it lets the administration decide when that's happened. Krikorian doesn't trust that.

Mr. KRIKORIAN: Everything we know about the way immigration policy and politics works tells us that at the end of the day, the illegals will all gets their legal status and all the other promises will be abandoned. I mean, you can have my car if it turns out differently.

LUDDEN: The bill goes before the full Senate for debate Monday. Among those pushing for its passage will be President Bush. He has called for an immigration overhaul since taking office and would be able to count it as one bipartisan success of his administration.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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