Senate Republicans unveiled revised immigration legislation Wednesday night clearing the way for legal status and eventual citizenship for many of the estimated 11 million men, women and children living in the United States unlawfully.
Majority Leader Bill Frist outlined the proposal after efforts at a bipartisan compromise faltered earlier in the day and the Senate teetered between accomplishment and gridlock on the most sweeping immigration bill in two decades.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid pledged to review the GOP proposal overnight to see whether “it could be something we could all support.” The prospects appeared uncertain, however, since the provisions appeared similar to what he and other Democrats had earlier spurned.
The fate of the 11 million immigrants living in the U.S. illegally hinged on the outcome of election-year maneuvering on an issue that Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said had generated an unusual amount of emotion.
Three thousand miles distant from the Capitol, Cardinal Roger Mahony asked Catholics to pray the Senate passes legislation allowing illegal immigrants to gain citizenship. The Los Angeles-based prelate said the debate marked “one of the most critical weeks in the history of our country.”
Republican officials said the GOP plan would divide illegal immigrants into three categories:
- Those who had been in the country the longest, more than five years, would not be required to return to their home country before gaining legal status. They would be subject to several tests, including the payment of fines and back taxes, and be required to submit to a background check, according to these officials.
- Illegal immigrants in the United States less than five years but more than two would be required to go to a border point of entry, briefly leave and then be readmitted to the United States. As with the longer-term illegal immigrants, other steps would be required for re-entry, after which they could begin seeking citizenship, these officials said.
- Illegal immigrants in the United States less than two years would be required to leave the country and join any other foreign residents seeking legal entry.
The officials who described the proposal did so on condition of anonymity, saying the had not been authorized to pre-empt senators.
There was no immediate reaction from the White House, although President Bush has repeatedly called for a comprehensive bill that included steps to deal with those living illegally in the country.
Frist’s move cleared the way for a series of test votes over the next day or two on a pair of rival proposals.
The first showdown was set for Thursday, on an attempt by Reid and other Democrats to advance legislation that cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee more than a week ago. While a bipartisan majority supported the bill, it quickly ran into trouble from conservative Republicans, some of whom said it would bestow amnesty on lawbreakers.
“This is a vote that for millions of Americans is a question about whose side you’re on,” said Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the second-ranking Democrat, adding that unless legislation clears the Senate this week, it may be doomed for the year.
But it appeared destined to gain far fewer than the 60 votes needed to advance, and perhaps less than a majority that would give political bragging rights to Reid in the event the effort to pass legislation eventually collapses.
Nor was it clear that Frist would be able to muster 60 votes for his revised legislation. In addition to Democratic critics, he faced potential defections from some in his own party.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas issued a statement late Wednesday that avoided taking a position on the proposal. It said he remains “adamant that we not repeat the mistakes of the 1986 bill, a measure widely viewed as having imposed amnesty on those in the country illegally.
In general, both of the major alternatives would strengthen border security, regulate the flow of future foreign workers and open the way to citizenship for many immigrants who are in the country illegally.
As they have for days, Democrats used their rights on the Senate floor to prevent votes on politically difficult amendments. Republicans criticized them but were unable to thwart the strategy.