Wednesday, May 9, 2007Senators are Working Quietly on An Immigration Reform Bill Likely to Feature a Guest Worker Program
By Michael Coleman
WASHINGTON— A bipartisan group of a dozen senators— including Pete Domenici of New Mexico— is working behind closed doors to craft a new immigration reform proposal that could have an expanded guest worker program as its centerpiece.
Domenici, a Republican, said in an interview that the group, led by Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., is hoping to develop a measure that could come to the floor within days.
"I believe there is a chance we will get a bill that will be put together and offered— and this will not be put together by just two or three people," Domenici told the Journal.
If the group does not reach consensus, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said he would use legislation introduced last year as a starting point for new floor debate.
The House and Senate tried to reach agreement on immigration reform before the midterm elections in 2006. President Bush, who has dispatched Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff to many of the private Senate meetings, wants Congress to try again.
Democratic Senate aides said Tuesday that negotiators from both parties are working in good faith, but the aides were skeptical that the Senate group could forge an agreement that Reid would agree to as a first step.
Domenici said the Senate group, in recent talks, has considered scrapping the idea of a so-called path to citizenship from last year's legislation in favor of an expanded guest worker program. Some members of Congress have proposed allowing the estimated 12 million undocumented workers already in the U.S. to remain and earn citizenship without being deported first if they meet certain requirements, such as paying fines and back taxes and learning English.
"It will be one or the other, but not both," said Domenici, a member of the Senate Homeland Security Committee.
Even the expanded guest worker proposal might be put off until more border enforcement mechanisms are in place, which could take at least two years, Domenici's chief of staff confirmed.
However, Domenici and Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., said efforts to increase border security are well under way since last year's debate.
Domenici said the proposed guest worker program under discussion would allow illegal workers already in the U.S. to apply for a temporary legal guest worker permit under terms similar to the former "path to citizenship" proposals. Those terms could include paying back taxes and passing a citizenship test, his office confirmed.
The permit might be valid for two, three or four years and would be renewable, he said. Such a program could reduce calls to give undocumented workers a path to citizenship, Domenici predicted.
"The overwhelming majority (of undocumented workers) will say that's good enough," he said.
The Democrat-controlled House plans to wait for Senate action before it takes up the issue, members of New Mexico's House delegation said last week.
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