Key senators yesterday announced that they will introduce a broad immigration overhaul with a multistep path to citizenship for illegal aliens and a new program for foreign workers that could increase yearly legal immigration by 400,000 people.
The bill -- sponsored by Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat -- also calls for the government to produce a border security strategy, and encourages Mexico to crack down on immigrant smugglers and take steps to control its own borders.
Sponsors said it is not an amnesty because it would require illegal aliens to pay all regular fees as well as a $1,000 fine to join a guest-worker program and, after six years, another $1,000 fine to obtain a green card signifying legal permanent residence. Green card holders eventually can apply for citizenship.
"This bill is not amnesty. This bill does not provide a free pass to anyone. This bill does not give an automatic pardon to anyone. This bill does not put those that have been illegal that are here in the United States at the front of the line," Mr. Kennedy said.
The measure sets up two new work visas -- one for those now here illegally and another for future foreign workers. The program anticipates 400,000 low-skilled, nonfarm workers the first year, but could expand. Those workers could apply for a green card after four years.
Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, said the worker program is critical because it avoids the mistakes of the 1986 amnesty.
"We just dealt with those who were here illegally, and we didn't recognize that there would be future needs for employment. And so the day that that act was signed into law in 1986, it was out of date, because we needed more workers," said Mr. Flake, who is sponsoring a House companion bill along with Rep. Jim Kolbe, Arizona Republican, and Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat.
American voters, though, oppose increasing immigration.
When asked whether "legal immigration into the United States" should be increased, decreased or kept the same, 14 percent of respondents to a February Westhill Partners-Hotline poll favored an increase. The poll of 800 voters found that 39 percent wanted immigration decreased and that 37 percent wanted it kept at its present level.
But Mr. Flake said he thinks those polls are misleading.
"If you phrase it differently, it's a lot higher than that," he said.
Mr. McCain yesterday said he has told the administration about the provisions of the bill, and that administration officials "certainly agreed that they are in accord with the president's principles. If you think it's different in some key aspects, you'll have to point them out to me."
Erin Healy, a White House spokeswoman, said President Bush's principles were to protect the nation's security and match willing workers with willing employers.
"We look forward to working with the leaders of both parties to pass legislation that meets the president's principles," she said.
Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican and chairman of the Judiciary immigration subcommittee, said the bill contributes to the debate but that he has concerns about the temporary worker provisions.
"I favor a work-and-return bill, not a work-and-stay bill," he said. "We already have laws in place that allow people to apply for legal permanent residence and American citizenship, so I think that's going to be a subject of some debate and perhaps disagreement in the Senate and in the House."
Mr. Cornyn is working on his own bill, and he said that to meet his approval, a bill would have to include enhanced border security, enhanced interior enforcement, employer accountability and a temporary worker program.
The House may be an even tougher sell.
"The section on 'border security' consists of little more than the commissioning of a few more government reports and working groups -- and the rest of the bill is dedicated to expanding taxpayer-funded health care and instant amnesty to the millions of illegal aliens who have successfully broken our laws," said Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican and chairman of the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus.