Friday, March 23, 2007

The chief House proponents of a path to citizenship for illegal aliens yesterday also embraced stricter enforcement, arguing they need to move that direction if they hope to pass a bill this year.

They introduced a new immigration overhaul that still grants almost all illegal aliens a path to citizenship, but would also speed up the requirement that they learn English, make them leave the country before they can start the path to citizenship, and make the entire program turn on the government showing it is making progress on border security and interior law enforcement.

With Democrats now in control in the House, the bill marks the first step in a renewed push to get immigration reform passed and says much about how far the debate has come since Congress deadlocked last year and the elections intervened.

“The third time is the charm. The planets are finally aligned to get this done,” said Rep. Jeff Flake, Arizona Republican, who is joining Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat, in sponsoring the bill.

Chief among the concessions is what sponsors call a “touch back” provision that requires illegal aliens, before obtaining permanent legal residency that puts them on a path to citizenship, to leave the country and then come back legally — a standard they could meet by going back to their home countries, or to Mexico or Canada for a day.

That change was a major step, designed to win Republican support.

“We’ve reached out to make sure we get bipartisan support for this bill,” Mr. Gutierrez said, adding that they will need dozens of Republicans to obtain a majority in the House. “I know that on a good day I get 180 Democrats, and that’s short of 218, and that’s on a good day.”

But plenty of Republicans are lining up in opposition, arguing that it is an amnesty because it lets illegal aliens remain and gives them a path to citizenship.

“It’s going to get the scarlet letter ‘A’ branded on the bill, and then the debate becomes who wants to get that brand and go back home and face voters,” said Rep. Steve King of Iowa, the top Republican on the House Judiciary Committee’s immigration subcommittee.

From the other side of the political spectrum a key Democratic ally, the AFL-CIO, said while the bill is better than an enforcement-only approach such as the bill House Republicans pursued last year, it is not sold. The labor federation opposed the “touch back” provision, and argued that allowing 400,000 more foreign workers a year will hurt U.S. workers.

The measure would:

• Require the Homeland Security Department to certify it has created a secure card for employers to identify legal workers, and to certify border security and interior enforcement are advancing.

• Let illegal aliens here as of June 1, 2006, remain in the country under a six-year work program, paying a $500 fine at the beginning and another $1,500 fine at the end. After six years, if they had maintained a work history and clean criminal record, they could gain a green card, or permanent residency.

• Speed the requirement of proving English skills up to the green card process, rather than at the time they apply for citizenship.

• Allow illegal aliens to obtain in-state tuition at public colleges and universities.

• Allow 400,000 new workers into the country per year, though it would protect American jobs by requiring employers to show they cannot find an American worker and prove the foreign workers wouldn’t depress wages. Those new workers would also have a path to citizenship.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, who had supported previous versions of the Flake-Gutierrez bill, has not signed on to this one. Yesterday, she said it was a good “framework” but focused her attention on President Bush, who she said should embrace the new bill’s approach.

Parts of the bill are likely to please Mr. Bush, including a path to citizenship for illegal aliens. But last year he embraced the Senate bill that allowed only those who had lived here the longest or, in Mr. Bush’s words, had “deep roots,” to achieve citizenship. And he has steadfastly rejected giving future foreign workers a path to citizenship.

By moving first, the House sponsors have also highlighted a division in the Senate, where backers are sparring over what to include in their bill.

But Mr. Gutierrez said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, has carved out the last two weeks in May to have a floor debate on immigration — which sets a timetable for the Senate Judiciary Committee to act.

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