Senators and the Bush administration yesterday reached an immigration deal that offers a multistep path to citizenship to millions of illegal aliens in exchange for better border security and a new way of choosing how future immigrants are selected.
The agreement, reached behind closed doors after months of talks among a small group of Republicans, Democrats and Bush Cabinet secretaries, created little enthusiasm for the negotiators, but those involved said it is the only chance for immigration reform to pass this year.
"This is the best I think that can be done with an enormous effort on a bipartisan basis," said Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican and one of the top negotiators.
Whether it is enough to win on the Senate floor next week is in doubt. Support seemed to crumble even as the deal was announced.
Conservative Republicans argued that the bill rewards illegal activity, while liberal Democrats said it is too draconian toward illegal aliens and too restrictive for future workers.
The plan, which was still being finalized, allows the estimated 12 million to 20 million illegal aliens in the United States to come forward and receive probationary status. Meanwhile, the government would continue to build fencing and vehicle barriers on the Mexico border, hire more immigration officers and institute better checks on employers.
Once the security improvements are complete, aliens on probation could apply for a proposed Z visa, putting them on the path to citizenship. They would have to return home at some point to apply for the intermediate step of obtaining a green card.
The plan would create a temporary worker system. Foreigners would be able to work two years before returning home for a year, for up to three cycles. The plan would create an immigration point system based on education, work skills and English proficiency, alongside a redesigned family reunification system.
The deal is a reversal for President Bush on several points: It does not require payment of back taxes, it allows future guest workers to bring families in some cases, and it eliminates last year's requirement that only illegal aliens with "roots" who have been here for some time have a path to citizenship.
The president called immigration "a tough issue for a lot of Americans," but said he was pleased with the deal.
"The agreement reached today is one that will help enforce our borders, but equally importantly, it will treat people with respect," he said after being briefed by his Cabinet secretaries. "This is a bill where people who live here in our country will be treated without amnesty, but without animosity."
Members of his own party said amnesty is exactly what the agreement delivers.
"This rewards people who broke the law with permanent legal status, and puts them ahead of millions of law-abiding immigrants waiting to come to America," said Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican. "I don't care how you try to spin it, this is amnesty."
Those convicted of serious crimes would not be eligible for the path to citizenship, though negotiators said they expect most illegal aliens to qualify. Final legalization wouldn't take place until the security "triggers" are met.
Under the plan, all workers, including U.S. citizens, will have to be verified as legal workers by their employers. For noncitizens, that means using a tamper-proof ID. For U.S. citizens, it means a driver's license, passport or other government-issued ID.
"This plan isn't perfect, but it is a strong agreement and a good solution," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the top Democratic negotiator.
All but forgotten is last year's immigration bill, which passed the Senate by a vote of 62-36 but never received a vote in the House. That bill split illegal aliens into groups based on their time in the United States, with those here the longest guaranteed a path to citizenship and those here less than two years being forced to go home.
Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, left his presidential campaign trail to return for the announcement, joining six other Republicans, Mr. Kennedy, two other Democrats and the two Cabinet secretaries for a press conference.
Republican voters have criticized Mr. McCain for what they see as his support of amnesty, and the senator pressed for fast action to try to limit the political damage.
"We all know this issue can be caught up in extracurricular politics unless we move forward as quickly as possible," he said.
Mr. DeMint and other Republicans are pushing to draw out the debate in hopes that voters will become disenchanted with it. They said the bill was written behind closed doors by a hand-picked group of senators, rather than going through the usual committee process.
"It's disappointing and even ironic how the deal announced today skirts the democratic processes of Congress," said Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican.
He complained that the floor debate starts Monday, even though a cost estimate hadn't been announced and a final text not released as of yesterday afternoon.
Even those who were part of what they called the "grand bargain" were confused.
At one point during the announcement, Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said he hoped the agriculture workers proposal known as "Ag-Jobs" would be included -- drawing a chorus of "it's in" from his colleagues.
Conspicuously absent from the announcement were Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat and a strong proponent of immigrant rights, and Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, who split with Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, after years of working on a bill with him.
Mr. Cornyn called the announcement "premature" because it was made without specific text of the bill.
"This is clearly a case where the broad principles people have talked about are good, at least in some respects, but then we have to get to the actual language," he said.