- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Tossing another hot potato on the 2010 congressional schedule, top Hispanic Democrats outlined Tuesday a major immigration-reform proposal that is more generous to illegal immigrants than the last two bills that failed to make it into law in the past three years.

Backers of overhauling the nation’s immigration laws have concluded that, having failed to win support from businesses and immigration-enforcement advocates in the past, they would write a new bill without any compromises.

The new legislation would kick local authorities out of the business of immigration enforcement, establish new due-process protections for illegal immigrants and create a new pathway to citizenship that would require only that illegal immigrants pay a very small fine and would not require them to return to their home country first.

“What we need to do right now is not complicated. Our nation’s immigration policy should be pro-family, pro-jobs, pro-security,” said Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat, who wrote the bill and took over leadership on the issue after the death of Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy. Mr. Gutierrez was greeted as a hero by dozens of immigrant rights supporters at a Capitol Hill rally introducing the bill.

The pathway to citizenship would require illegal immigrants to pay a $500 fine and complete a criminal-record check in exchange for legal status. After six years, they could apply for a green card signifying legal permanent residence if they prove they are learning English and civics and paying taxes. The bill would apply to anyone who could show he or she was in the U.S. as of Tuesday - the day the legislation was introduced in Congress.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, is working on the Senate version of the bill and supporters in both chambers say they want a debate next year - something President Obama has also called for.

But the poor jobs picture and upcoming midterm elections make that a tough sell for many lawmakers. Republicans have already signaled they will argue the economy is not strong enough to legalize millions of illegal immigrant workers who are filling jobs that could be done by Americans and legal immigrants.

One key change from the 2006 and 2007 bills is that backers have dropped a guest-worker program to allow for a steady stream of temporary workers in the future. Businesses wanted the program but labor unions have balked, arguing it drives down wages.

Dropping guest workers has cost Mr. Gutierrez the support of a former ally, Republican Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona, who in previous years had teamed with the Democrat to introduce immigration bills.

“I know how committed he is to this issue. However, this is a flawed bill,” Mr. Flake said. “It repeats the mistakes of the ‘86 reform - massive legalization without a temporary worker program to accommodate future labor demands.”

He also said that Mr. Gutierrez watered down the tough legalization provisions that were in the bill they sponsored together in the last Congress.

That previous bill called for a $2,000 fine - four times the fine in the new bill - and had required illegal immigrants to return home at some point before obtaining a green card.

The new bill also carves out special visas that would go specifically to countries that already send a high number of illegal immigrants. Backers said this would be a safety valve on illegal immigration.