Bill offers temporary legal status to undocumented immigrants

Dave Montgomery
McClatchy Newspapers
Thursday, March 22, 2007

WASHINGTON - Bipartisan legislation to be unveiled Thursday in the House of Representatives would offer temporary legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants but would require them to leave the country before they could be eligible for permanent residency and U.S. citizenship.

The bill by Reps. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., and Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., is the first major immigration legislation to be introduced in the current session of Congress, as lawmakers address the status of more than 11 million immigrants who are in the country illegally.

A comprehensive Senate immigration bill died in the previous, Republican-controlled Congress amid intense opposition from Republican members, who rebuffed President Bush's call for a sweeping overhaul of immigration laws. With Democrats in control of Congress, Bush again has made immigration a centerpiece of his domestic agenda and thinks he has a strong chance to succeed now.

The Gutierrez-Flake proposal includes many of the ingredients of the failed Senate bill. It would create a guest-worker program that would enable foreign workers to stay in the country for up to six years to hold jobs that U.S. workers have bypassed.

Bush has insisted that a guest-worker program be part of any immigration bill to give U.S. businesses a steady source of foreign workers to fill what they say is a chronic labor shortage in low-skilled and unskilled jobs. Under the Gutierrez-Flake bill, qualified foreign guest workers would get three-year visas that they could renew for another three years, then they'd be required to return home.

Flake said in an interview Wednesday that illegal immigrants who were in the country now also could be eligible to work legally here for up to six years if they paid back taxes and fines, learned English and passed criminal background checks.

If they wanted to stay in the country to be eligible for a green card - denoting permanent legal residence - and eventual citizenship, they'd be required to leave the U.S., most likely for Mexico or Canada, and register back in the United States through a port of entry.

The so-called "touch-back" provision was also in the Senate bill, in an attempt to soften objections among conservatives who oppose blanket legalization of undocumented immigrants. The Senate measure applied different standards for categories of immigrants based on their lengths of stay in the country, but that feature isn't in the Gutierrez-Flake bill.

The bill also would require the Department of Homeland Security to certify that certain steps have been taken to secure U.S. borders before the guest worker and legalization programs go into effect. Those conditions would include a sharp increase in border enforcement personnel and substantial progress on a multibillion-dollar high-tech surveillance shield that's under construction on the U.S.-Mexican border.

Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a research center that's pressing for an overhaul of the immigration system, said the provisions were aimed at pulling the legislation to the center of the political spectrum by attracting Republicans who might otherwise oppose a comprehensive immigration plan.

"This is a recognition that you can't pass the bill without at least 20 Republicans in the Senate and 40 Republicans in the House," she said.

White House officials have been consulted about the bill, Flake said, but haven't embraced specific legislation. Conservatives in the Senate have been meeting with top-ranking Bush administration officials in discussions that could spawn a White House-sanctioned bill. The meetings have included Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and two senators who sponsored an alternative to the failed Senate bill: Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.

Bush made immigration a major component of his State of the Union address in January, calling for a "rational middle ground between a program of mass deportation and a program of automatic amnesty."

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