REBECCA ROBERTS, host:
The fate of a wide-ranging Senate immigration bill remains unclear. The legislation is a delicate compromise. It would legalize some 12 million undocumented immigrants here now in exchange for limiting who could come in the future. It survived a series of potentially killer amendments from both the left and right. But a surprise vote last night on the bill's guest worker program dealt what some consider a fatal blow. By just one vote, the Senate decided to end the program after five years.
NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: The temporary worker program has been hard to defend even for the bill's supporters. It would have foreign workers come here for two years, then return home for one year, then repeat that two more times. It's unwieldy, some say unworkable.
Last night, Senator Byron Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota, said it's also unfair.
Senator BYRON DORGAN (Democrat, North Dakota): All of these jobs - temporary workers will assume are going to compete with people at the bottom of the economic ladder in this country. They're called American workers as well.
LUDDEN: Dorgan said it's also not clear that all the temporary workers would actually leave when they're supposed to.
Sen. DORGAN: And what if they don't leave? We're going to come back to the floor with a new immigration bill? Talking about this illegal immigration? Why don't we stop after five years and take a look and see whether this has worked?
LUDDEN: Democrat Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts tried to fend off the idea. The bill he's sponsoring would require businesses to seek U.S. employees before signing up guest workers. And Kennedy says if there's economic demand, workers will find one way or another to meet it.
Senator EDWARD KENNEDY (Democrat, Massachusetts): If they come in the back door as they are now, they're going to be exploited, humiliated. If they come through the front door as a result - there's no American worker prepared to take that job, they're going to get labor protections.
LUDDEN: Kennedy lost the vote. And business groups supporting the Senate bill were stunned.
Ms. LAURA REIFF (Co-chair, Essential Worker Immigration Coalition): It is a slap in the face to the underlying problem here.
LUDDEN: Laura Reiff co-chairs the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition. She says you only have to look back at the amnesty of 1986 to see why a guest worker program is needed. That law made no accommodation for future demand for low-wage workers.
Ms. REIFF: So we've seen 500,000 people come across the border every year, taking jobs in the United States using fraudulent documents and really helping the U.S. economy.
LUDDEN: Bush administration officials say demand for low-wage jobs is only growing at a time when U.S. birth rates are falling and the percentage of Americans without a high school diploma is shrinking.
The original Senate bill called for 400,000 to 600,000 guest workers each year, based on projected labor shortages. Business had already suffered a setback two weeks ago when that was cut to just 200,000 a year. Reiff says ending the program altogether after five years would hurt the economy.
Critics don't buy that.
Mr. MARK KRIKORIAN (Executive Director, Center for Immigration Studies): The fact is that 21st century economy does not need an ongoing flow of 19th century peasant labor to prosper.
LUDDEN: Mark Krikorian is with the Center for Immigration Studies, which wants less immigration. He points out the bipartisan Jordan Commission a decade ago declared the U.S. had no need for a guest worker program. Krikorian says such schemes actually prevent industries like agriculture from becoming more productive.
Mr. KRIKORIAN: It's not because the farmers are doing anything bad, they're simply making a rational calculation - that putting the money into developing new varieties of crops or new machinery or what have you isn't worth it because you can get the labor so cheap.
LUDDEN: Business lobbyist Laura Reiff says her coalition has decided it can't win this battle in the Senate. It hopes to win a permanent guest worker program during negotiations in the House if the embattled immigration bill actually makes it there.
Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.