In a compromise that was already generating heated criticism by the end of the day, the United States Senate reached a broad agreement on the shape of a new immigration reform bill today. Being hailed as a bi-partisan effort, and being lauded as a point of agreement between the Congress and the White House on a very divisive issue, the bill proposes both increased border security measures and a path toward legalization for millions of illegal migrants currently in the U.S.
Last year the Senate introduced a bill somewhat similar to the new one that will now go to intense debate next week. Last years bill was seen as a more reasoned approach to an extremely harsh bill proposed by the U.S. House of Representatives in the final weeks of 2005.
The issue is large and complex, but a few key points stand out.
On one side of the debate, some people wish to deport all of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. In addition, they generally feel that all immigration into the United States should be severely restricted. Thousands of miles of walls are under construction and being planned, and high-technology military surveillance methods are being implemented.
On the other side of the debate, most Americans are more concerned that immigrants in the country are there legally, and are productive, contributing members of society. Many favor deportation of a percentage of illegal immigrants that present danger to society, and they see the reality of increased security for the country.
One reality is that the cost of deporting 12 million people is huge. Also, last year a record 225,000 people were deported, a rate that would take nearly 50 years just to remove the people already in the country illegally.
Rhetoric has been strong on both sides of the debate, but interests that want to deport nearly everyone held more power in the U.S. government only a few short months ago. Proposals were quite harsh, as represented in the House version of the immigration bill a year and a half ago.
One of the key sticking points has been how to allow currently illegal immigrants to remain in the U.S. The current Senate bill allows for a path toward legalization, something George Bush has been pushing for about two years. Opponents label it an amnesty, and characterize it as a failed experiment from the early 1980's that rewards illegal behavior.
Perhaps one of the best signs that this current bill may be on the correct track is that all participants have something to lose. The White House and the conservative and the liberal political parties all may face fallout with voters.
Special interest factions reacted immediately after the announcement. All of the rhetoric from the last year began to make an appearance in news reports, the Internet and especially in political blogs.
The bill itself presents a target-rich environment, since it attempts to touch on nearly all aspects of immigration reform. The proposal constitutes 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.
A new class of guest workers would be allowed in temporarily, but only after borders were fortified and measures were in place to ensure the rules were followed.
Bush said the proposal would "help enforce our borders but, equally importantly, it'll treat people with respect."
"This is a bill where people who live here in our country will be treated without amnesty but without animosity."
Conservatives on both sides of the Capitol derided the deal as "amnesty" for illegal immigrants, using a politically charged word that figured prominently in campaigns across the country last year.
"I don't care how you try to spin it, this is amnesty," said Sen. Jim DeMint, Republican from South Carolina.
The proposed agreement would allow illegal immigrants to come forward and obtain a "Z visa" and - after paying fees and a $5,000 fine - 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.
Sen. Robert Menendez, Democrat from New Jresey, said the proposal "tears families apart" because a new point system used to evaluate future legal immigrants would value family connections well below employment-related criteria.
"When you anchor yourself to the far right and you give, I think, relatively little, it's hard to meet the challenge" of producing a workable bill, Menendez said in an interview.
The proposed bill will undergo intense debate in the coming weeks. The House of Representatives will have to put forth their own bill.
Once a compromise is reached that both houses agree on, it will be sent to the White House. George Bush has said he wants a new immigration law by the end of this summer.
Most analysts agree that if immigration reform is stalled into the holiday season, the effort probably will die again until after the 2008 elections, very much like what happened last year.
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