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Immigration agreement ‘very close’ in Congress; guest workers still a hurdle

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Members of the "Gang of Eight" tasked with carving out a comprehensive immigration package said Wednesday that they hope to file a bill when they return to Washington from their Easter break, and suggested that they are on the verge of a deal between business and labor leaders on visas for low-skilled workers.

The high-profile immigration talks stalled out last week when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO failed to agree on the details of a proposed guest-worker program, a snag that has bogged down ongoing negotiations.

But after touring the border on Wednesday, Democrats Sens. Charles E. Schumer of New York and Michael F. Bennet of Colorado, as well as Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, both Arizona Republicans, sounded optimistic about their chances of filing a bill next month.

"Bottom line, we're very close," Mr. Schumer told reporters. "I'd say we're 90 percent there. We have a few little problems, we've been on the phone all day with our four other colleagues."

The group also includes Republican Sens. Marco Rubio of Florida and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Democratic Sens. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Robert Menendez of New Jersey.

They are working to convince the public and lawmakers to get on board with their plan, which grants a legal status to the nation's estimated 11 million illegal immigrants on Day One, but requires the border be deemed secure before anybody living here illegally gets a pathway to citizenship.

The biggest hurdle, though, has been bridging the divide between business and labor leaders over the details of how best to revamp the nation's guest-worker program — a fight that also helped derail comprehensive immigration reform in 2007.

The senators had hoped to hammer out those differences and roll out their proposal before their two-week break, and they appeared to be on track to meet their self-imposed deadline.

But the talks broke down when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO knocked heads over how much workers would be paid as part of a proposed new visa program that would bring as many as 200,000 lower-skilled workers into the country each year.

Mr. McCain said the final product likely will be a tough pill for a lot of people to swallow.

"Nobody is going to be totally happy with this legislation, no one will be because we have to make compromises," Mr. McCain said.

The trip also provided the senators with a firm reminder of the magnitude of the legislative challenges before them, as well as the difficulty involved in securing the border, when they watched a woman during a tour of the Mexican border scale over a fence.

"Just witnessed a woman successfully climb an 18-ft bollard fence a few yards from us in," Mr. McCain said via Twitter. "Border Patrol successfully apprehended her, but incident is another reminder that threats to our border security are real."

Mr. Schumer said the overall experience of going to the border for the first time will help him educate his colleagues, and sell them on their plan.

"You can read and you can study and you can talk but until you see things it doesn't change reality," Mr. Schumer said. "I'll be able to explain it to my colleagues. Many of my colleagues say, 'Why do we need to do anything more on the border?' and we do."

Others weren't so sure.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican and a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, warned Wednesday against rushing an immigration bill through the Senate. He said Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, is outlining a timetable for the legislation that's too rapid.

"Specifically, it seems the chairman is arguing we can put a bill on the floor two weeks after the Gang of Eight potentially produces legislation in early April," Mr. Sessions said. "The massive proposal being cobbled together by a group of senators in secret must be independently judged and reviewed by the Judiciary Committee in the full light of day. That will take months — not two weeks."

He added, "No member of Congress who believes in democratic procedure can acquiesce to the ramming through of a thousand-page bill that will dramatically and directly impact the taxes, wages and security of our constituents."

President Obama, meanwhile, continued to apply pressure on lawmakers, saying in interviews with Univision and Telemundo, the nation's two largest Spanish-language networks, that he is "optimistic" that when the senators get back to Capitol Hill, they will have a proposal that "meets the basic principles that I think are required for a strong bill.

"They are paying attention to border security, they are creating a way for people to earn their citizenship, they are improving the legal immigration system, and making sure that we can recruit the best and the brightest from all around the world that come here, invest here, and work here," he told Univision.

The National Hispanic Leadership Agenda — a coalition of 30 religious, business and civic organizations — also looked to crank up the heat on lawmakers, launching a Hispanics United for Immigration Reform campaign in support of a comprehensive package that includes a pathway to citizenship.

"We are counting votes," said Jose Calderon, president of the Hispanic Federation. "That is part of the work that the coalition does to make sure we can get over the top in terms of passing immigration reform this year, and so we are going to be targeting key congressional districts, key congressional members across America that are either on the fence or who we think we can get them over to our side."

The group said Congress should revamp the visa system, should expedite family-based immigrant visas and must open the door for citizenship.

"If we are to restore the rule of law, the single most essential element of immigration reform is an earned legalization program with the real achievable road map to citizenship," said Janet Murguia, president of the National Council of La Raza, the largest umbrella organization for Hispanic groups. "Not because enforcement is not important, but because enforcement is all we have done, and restoring the rule of law requires that we do both."

• Dave Boyer contributed to this report.

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