WASHINGTON—The Democratic-controlled Senate next week will plunge into its first confrontation over immigration when it debates a comprehensive bill crafted by a bipartisan group of senators and endorsed by President Bush.
Here's a guide for the upcoming debate:
QUESTION: Millions of illegal immigrants would be quickly legalized under this bill. Isn't that amnesty?
ANSWER: Depends on the perspective. The Bush administration and the bill's supporters say no, because illegal immigrants would pay fines and fees and would have to meet other conditions if they eventually want to get on a path to citizenship.
An array of critics, including many Republican lawmakers, assert otherwise. They say the financial penalties are designed primarily to give proponents political cover to deflect the amnesty tag. They say any process that lets illegal immigrants become legal is amnesty.
Q: How would legalization work?
A: Within six months after the law's enactment, illegal immigrants would be placed on probationary status and could work legally while the Department of Homeland Security completes background checks.
After the government certifies that certain border-security measures—so-called triggers—are in place, the illegal immigrants could pay a $1,000 fine and receive a Z visa that would be renewable every four years. They would be permitted to stay in the country indefinitely if they obey the law and stay employed.
Q: Could they become citizens?
A: First they'd have to get a "green card," which would make them legal permanent residents of the United States. Z card holders could ultimately apply for a green card—but not until the government clears out a current backlog of more than 5 million other green card applicants, which will take eight years.
Then they would return to their home country to file their application, demonstrate proficiency in English and pay an additional $4,000 fine. Those who measured higher in a merit-based system giving weight to education and professional skills would have the edge.
The DHS estimates that a Z card holder's total wait time for a green card would be anywhere from nine to 13 years. They could also get approval to go to Mexico or Canada to apply if conditions prohibit them from returning to their home country.
Q: There are an estimated 12 million immigrants now in the United States. Will they all be eligible for Z visas?
A: Not likely. The DHS estimates that between 15 to 20 percent of those now in country would be disqualified because they'd fail to pass criminal-background checks.
Illegal immigrants, while on probation, would have a year—possibly two—to apply for Z cards. Those who failed to apply would be subject to deportation if they were arrested.
Q: What's the rationale for the legalization program?
A: The Bush administration and supporters of the bill say there is virtually no other option to deal with such a large shadow population dispersed across the country.
Mass deportation, they say, is unworkable and prohibitively expensive, while allowing undocumented immigrants to step forward makes them tax-paying legal workers and ends criminal enterprises associated with illegal immigration, including document forging and human smuggling.
Opponents of the bill say that rigid enforcement of existing penalties against employers of illegal immigrants would dry up the job pool and send undocumented aliens home. They also argue that the bill's enactment won't stop illegal immigration.
Q: Explain the trigger mechanisms.
A: They were included at the insistence of conservatives who wanted assurances that border enforcement will be significantly toughened before the legalization and guest-worker provisions take effect.
They include increasing the number of Border Patrol agents to 18,000 installing 70 ground-based radar and camera systems along the Southwestern border, and creating an electronic verification system to screen employment eligibility.
One politically troublesome pre-requisite is the construction of 370 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexican border. Several leading House Republicans say it should be much longer—at least 700 miles—and many border-state landowners don't want it at all.
Barring any setbacks, the triggers are expected to be in place within 18 months of enactment.
Q: How will this bill affect me?
A: Perhaps the most broad-based effect is through the creation of the electronic verification system, which will require employers to match photo IDs, such as a passport or tamper-proof driver's license, against a national database.
Within 18 months of enactment, employers would be required to verify new hires. That includes anyone who changes jobs. After three years, employers would be required to verify all employees.
Privacy groups are suspicious that the plan could lead to a national ID system, a charge that the bill's supporters adamantly dismiss.
Q: Explain the guest-worker plan.
A: The bill enables U.S. employers to bring in up to 400,000 foreign workers a year to fill what they say is a chronic shortage in low- and unskilled jobs. The cap could be raised to 600,000 if the government determines that the need exists.
They would be given two-year Y visas, which could be renewed two more times for a total of six years. They would be required to return home for a year between each renewal. A limited number could be eligible for green cards, based on merit, but most would be required to go home permanently at the end of six years.
The provision is another lightning rod in the bill. Employers and pro-immigration groups believe the workers should be allowed to apply for green cards. Others believe the entire guest-worker program should be knocked out because it takes jobs from U.S. workers.
Q: There's been considerable attention about a merit-based system and its impact on family reunification. How would that work?
A: The current immigration system is heavily tilted toward family-based immigration, which allows citizens and legal immigrants to petition to bring in other family members, including siblings, parents and adult children.
Of the estimated 1.1 million immigrants admitted annually, roughly 750,000 are family members. The rest are admitted for employment, as refugees, for asylum and other factors.
Critics say this pattern of "chain migration" has created an enormous backlog of family applications that has overwhelmed the immigration system. Some applicants have been waiting for up to 22 years for a green card.
Consequently, the Bush administration wants to shift toward a system in which future immigrants would be admitted on the basis of their ability to contribute to U.S. society and the country's economic needs.
Points would be awarded on a number of factors, including education or experience in a profession or occupation in high demand in the United States. The concept is patterned after point-based systems in other countries, including Canada and Australia.
U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents could bring in immediate families—spouses and minor children—but adult children and siblings would no longer be eligible. Visas for parents of U.S. citizens would be capped at 40,000.
The issue looms as one of the most acrimonious in the coming Senate debate. Pro-immigration groups, Hispanic organizations and humanitarian groups say the bill would severely undercut family reunification. But Republicans advocating a merit system say they plan to stand firmly behind the provision.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.