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Immigration Deal a Relief for All

May 17, 2007 - by Donny Shaw

To the relief of all, a deal on immigration reform has been reached. At a lunchtime press conference, a group of senators who for months had been involved in tense closed-door negotiations announced they had finally settled on a comprehensive immigration reform bill to bring to the Senate floor next week.

All parties involved — Democrats, Republicans, and the President — needed this agreement. The President and the Democrats in Congress are both looking to improve their low approval ratings. They are hoping that reforming a major domestic issue like immigration policy will help them out. Congressional Republicans needed an immigration agreement because they simply can not afford to stand in the way of fixing the current immigration system, which a wide consensus – including their constituents – agrees is broken.
(Pictured at right is Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez hugging Sen. Lindsey Graham (R, SC) and an Administration staffer after the deal was reached earlier today.)

Here’s an overview of what is included in the bill as well as some background as to where the agreed-upon provisions stand in relationship to the different priorities of the parties involved in the negotiations:

Path to Citizenship

All of the estimated 12-15 million undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. before January 1, 2007 will immediately be granted a probationary work authorization card. This probationary period will last until certain “triggers,” which the legislation is proposing, are met. These triggers include enhancements to border security and changes to the high-tech worker identification program.

Once these triggers are met, probationary card holders will be able to apply for a “Z visa” that officially puts them on the path to becoming U.S. citizens. They would be required to pay a fine of about $5,000 and heads of households would have to “touchnack” by returning to their home country before being officially allowed to legally re-enter. They will have eight years to do this.

Many Republicans oppose any path to citizenship plan, deriding it as “amnesty” and saying that it rewards lawbreakers. So, in order to have agreed on a bill including a path to citizenship plan, Democrats had to make a lot of concessions. The triggers system comes from the White House’s immigration proposal, which was leaked in the form of a powerpoint presentation in March. The proposal calls for border security triggers, but the high-tech worker trigger was added, presumably by Republicans, during negotiations. The $5,000 fine is a compromise. The President had proposed a $10,000 fine (The President’s plan states that “penalties are the difference between amnesty and restitution”) and Democrats (really a bipartisan group last year) had proposed a $2,000 fine. The touchback requirement is another concession that comes straight from the White House plan.

Ending Chain Migration

In the same way that the path to citizenship plan was a victory for Democrats, the new provisions restricting family-based immigration are a victory for Republicans. In general, the agree-upon bill establishes a merit-based point system for future immigrants which favors factors that help the U.S. economy above factors of family connection. After clearing out a backlog of applicants, the ratio of green cards would be set at 60 percent family based and 40 percent merit based.

According to the White House proposal, the merit-based point system would select “for merit and national interests in categories like education, skills, English proficiency, employer recommendations, etc. — but which also gives significant weight to [these are for Y visa holders]… years of U.S. work, homeownership, health insurance enrollment, children’s success in school, and other indicators of civic roots and equity in America,” including points for having family members in America.

Guest Worker Program

Once the same triggers for Z visas are met, guest workers will be allowed in to the country on what is known as a Y visa. There will be 40,000 Y visas available every year. They last for two years and allow holders to travel home freely to visit their families. Families of Y visa holders will also be allowed to visit the U.S. by obtaining visitor visas. Guest workers will be allowed to apply to become citizens and because of the merit-based point system that will be implemented, their former Y visa holder status will be helpful in obtaining a Z visa.

This guest worker program comes almost straight from the White House proposal, but the 40,000 annual cap was agreed upon in the negotiations.

Border Security Enhancements

Border security has been the first principle of both the White House plan and last year’s bipartisan Senate plan. In general, this year’s bill will increase greatly increase the number of border patrol agents, enhance interior enforcement measures, and construct 370 miles of fence at the Mexico/U.S. border.

The bill will have to move through the Senate and the House of Representatives and, since there are so many movable and adjustable parts, the amendment process will likely result in a significantly different bill. So, whether or not everyone agrees with all the specifics of it, we can all take some comfort in the news that immigration reform will have a chance in the 110th Congress.

Here’s what some others are saying about the bill: Bill Frist, Hugh Hewitt, Captain Ed, and Glenn Hurowitz.

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