Congress should coalesce behind sweeping new compromise immigration legislation despite steep political obstacles because opportunities to confront the problem head-on are rare, Sen. Edward Kennedy said Friday.
Kennedy, the lead Democratic negotiator with Republicans and the White House, acknowledged widespread criticism but called it "our last-gasp stand."
The bill, which conservatives immediately attacked as an "amnesty" program, would provide a pathway to citizenship for some 12 million immigrants now in the United States illegally. It also would mandate tougher border security and workplace enforcement and provide for a guest worker program.
Critics complained that it would reward the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants with a way of gaining legal status and staying in the U.S. permanently without being punished.
Asked about amnesty on CBS's "The Early Show" Friday morning, Kennedy said, "That's sort of a slogan and a cliche you're going to hear a lot about." He said fixing the nation's "broken borders" is long overdue.
The bill would allow illegal immigrants to come forward right away, but they could not get visas or begin a path to citizenship until the border security improvements and a high-tech worker identification program were put in place.
After that, illegal immigrants could obtain a renewable "Z visa" that would allow them stay in the country indefinitely. After paying fees and fines totaling $5,000, they could ultimately get on track for permanent residency, which could take between eight and 13 years. Heads of households would have to return to their home countries first.
The compromise agreement marked an extraordinary marriage of liberal and conservative goals that has the potential to bridge stubborn divides. But prospects are uncertain.
For example, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said he will move to kill the guest worker program because it would hurt American workers.
'Serious concerns about the deal'
Presidential politics could also complicate the deal's chances. Fissures among the candidates started emerging swiftly after it was announced.
"I don't know if the immigration legislation is going to bear fruit and we're going to be able to pass it," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who harbored "serious concerns" about the deal.
Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida, chairman of the Republican National Committee, told state party leaders meeting in Columbia, S.C. Friday that "if we don't pass this bill, nobody that is in the shadows today will come out of the shadows and be accounted for."
Even if it were to survive what's certain to be a searing Senate battle, the measure would be up against long odds in the House.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., acknowledging deep divisions on immigration among Democrats, says she won't bring it up unless President Bush can guarantee he will produce 70 Republican backers - a tall order given GOP concerns that the bill is too lenient.
Rewarding illegal behavior
The deal came under attack from a set of lawmakers and interest groups as diverse as those that united to craft it. Their varying concerns and competing agendas - along with a challenging political environment - could be enough to unravel the painstakingly written agreement.
Two of the key players in the talks from each end of the political spectrum, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, walked away from the deal before it was announced.
"What part of illegal does the Senate not understand? Any plan that rewards illegal behavior is amnesty," said Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Calif., chairman of the Immigration Reform Caucus.
Liberals, on the other hand, are unhappy with the proposal because it makes a far-reaching change in the immigration system that would admit future arrivals seeking to put down roots in the U.S. based on their skills, education levels and job experience - limiting the importance of family ties.
"We have concerns about the historic shift away from family unification as the backbone of our immigration system," said Kevin Appleby of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Immigrant advocacy and labor groups also oppose the terms of a new guest worker program in which low-skilled immigrants would be forced to leave the country after temporary stints and would have limited opportunities to stay and get on a path to permanent legalization.
"Without a real path to legalization, the program will exclude millions of workers and thus ensure that America will have two classes of workers, only one of which can exercise workplace rights," said John J. Sweeney, the AFL-CIO president.
Many liberal groups, which revere Kennedy as his party's decisive voice on immigration, reserved judgment on the deal, calling it a good starting point and holding out hope of improving it during next week's Senate debate. But they also voiced substantial worries.
Jorge Mursuli of People For the American Way said the measure "departs radically from America's immigration tradition of putting family reunification first. This bill also includes a future worker program that is destined for failure." Mursuli nonetheless called the plan a "solid start."