Senators in Bipartisan Deal on
By ROBERT PEAR and JIM RUTENBERG
Published: May 18, 2007
WASHINGTON, May 17 — Senate negotiators from both
parties announced Thursday that they had reached
agreement on a comprehensive immigration bill that
would offer legal status to most of the nation’s 12
million illegal immigrants while also toughening
If the bill becomes law, it would result in the
biggest changes in immigration law and policy in
more than 20 years. That would provide President
Bush with a political lift and a tangible
accomplishment for his second term. It would also be
a legislative achievement for the new Democratic
leaders in Congress, though they said they would
seek changes in the measure.
At the heart of the bill is a significant political
trade-off. Democrats got a legalization program,
which they have sought for many years. Republicans
got a new “merit-based system of immigration,”
intended to make the United States more competitive
in a global economy.
But the politics of the deal are precarious.
Democrats are already trying to tamp down concerns
of Hispanic groups, who fear that the bill would
make it more difficult for immigrants to bring
relatives from abroad. At the same time, Republican
negotiators face blistering criticism from some
conservatives, who say the bill would grant a
virtual amnesty to people who had broken the law.
Mr. Bush praised the Senate measure, which
incorporates many of his ideas, saying, “I really am
anxious to sign a comprehensive immigration bill as
soon as I possibly can.”
The bill goes next week to the Senate floor, where
negotiators predicted that it would receive
overwhelming support. One reason for that optimism
was the partnership in evidence at the news
conference where the package was announced by 10
senators, including Edward M. Kennedy of
Massachusetts, a liberal Democrat, and Jon Kyl of
Arizona, a conservative who is chairman of the
Senate Republican Conference.
Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, came off
the presidential campaign trail to embrace the
compromise, a potentially risky step because the
proposal is unpopular with many conservatives, who
are expected to play a large role in choosing the
party’s presidential candidate.
The measure’s prospects are less clear in the House,
which plans to take up immigration in July.
Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, chairman of
the House Democratic Caucus, said, “Unless the White
House produces 60 or 70 Republican votes in the
House, it will be difficult to pass an immigration
bill similar to the Senate proposal.”
Representative Xavier Becerra, Democrat of
California and a former chairman of the
Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said he had grave
concerns about the Senate bill.
“It’s a pretty radical shift to go to an
employment-based visa system as opposed to a family
system,” Mr. Becerra said in an interview. “You will
continue to have close family members separated from
their loved ones because of this policy.”
The bill includes a temporary-worker program, under
which 400,000 to 600,000 foreign workers could be
admitted to the country each year.
Mr. Becerra said the proposal would create “a
permanent underclass of imported workers to fill
The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada,
offered cautionary words as well, saying: “I have
serious concerns about some aspects of this
proposal, including the structure of its
temporary-worker program and undue limitations on
family immigration. We need to improve the bill as
it moves through the legislative process.”
Mr. Kennedy has acknowledged that the agreement is
not the immigration bill he would have written in
another political environment. But on Thursday he
said, “The agreement is the best possible chance we
will have in years to secure our borders and bring
millions of people out of the shadows and into the
sunshine of America.”
Besides creating a path toward legalization for
illegal immigrants, the bill would strengthen the
border through the addition of more fencing and
other security measures and an increase in the
number of Border Patrol agents.
The deal sets the stage for a rare victory for Mr.
Bush, who set a goal of establishing a new
immigration system at the start of his presidency
but saw it stymied by his own party.
As the governor of Texas, Mr. Bush had seen
firsthand the challenges of border security and the
lengths to which impoverished Mexicans were willing
to go to enter this country illegally. What he
depicted as “a rational immigration system” — one
that would offer a temporary-worker program and a
way for those who have set up working lives here
illegally to become citizens — was a major part of
his “compassionate conservative” agenda.
But the Sept. 11 attacks derailed his plan, and by
the time he set out to enact it in his second term
conservatives were livid over what they called
deplorably inadequate efforts to secure the border.
That anger, repeated nightly on talk radio and by
the CNN host Lou Dobbs, remains, and is seen within
the Republican Party as a motivating force for
conservative voters in the next presidential
As soon as the agreement was announced, players on
both sides of the immigration issue rolled out their
defense and their offense.
Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, defended
the proposal in a television appearance on “Lou
Dobbs Tonight,” whose host has become one of the
most vocal critics of Mr. Bush’s immigration policy.
Mr. Dobbs opened the program by calling the deal an
apparent victory for “the pro-illegal-alien lobby.”
The administration was “hellbent on creating a North
American union without the consent of the American
people,” he said, and the plan could “threaten
national sovereignty and security as well.”
John J. Sweeney, president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O.,
denounced the bill from a different angle, saying it
would create “a massive guest worker program.”
“All workers will suffer because employers will have
available a ready pool of labor they can exploit to
drive down wages, benefits, health and safety
protections and other workplace standards,” Mr.
Senator Byron L. Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota,
said he would offer an amendment to eliminate the
guest worker program from the bill.
Under the merit-based system envisioned in the bill,
the government would adopt a point system to
evaluate the qualifications of many people seeking
permission to immigrate. Points would be awarded for
job skills, education and English language
Negotiators emphasized that foreign-born spouses and
minor children of American citizens would continue
to receive preference in the allocation of visas.
Moreover, they said, family ties would be an
advantage in the proposed point system. If two
applicants had the same skills and the same
educational credentials, but one also had relatives
in the United States, that person would receive the
The negotiators insisted that the legalization
program was different from amnesty because illegal
immigrants would have to pay fines and go through
background checks. They could work in the United
States under probationary status and could receive
renewable four-year “Z visas.” Heads of households
would have to return to their home countries to
apply for green cards if they wanted to become
lawful permanent residents and then citizens.
Many of the presidential candidates reacted
cautiously to the agreement.
Senator Barack Obama, Democrat of Illinois, said he
“did not want to prejudge the deal” before he had an
opportunity to study the legislation. Mr. Obama said
that he favored strengthening border security and
creating a pathway to citizenship, but that he was
troubled by the temporary-worker system and the
proposed point system.
“Those two things represent significant changes,”
Mr. Obama said. “Whether they work to stabilize the
immigration system and whether they are just and
human is something that I’m still concerned about.”
Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New
York, said she had not had an opportunity to review
Mrs. Clinton said she would examine the proposal “to
see if it honors our nation’s principles and proud
immigrant heritage while also respecting the rule of
John Edwards, another Democratic candidate, said he
had concerns about parts of the proposal, including
a “poorly conceived guest worker program.”
Among the major Republican contenders, immigration
has been a potentially troubling issue for Mr.
McCain and Rudolph W. Giuliani because of their
Another Republican candidate, Mitt Romney, the
former Massachusetts governor, issued a blistering
denunciation of the proposal, saying it was “unfair
to the millions of people who have applied to
legally immigrate to the U.S.”