Bipartisan push to overhaul immigration laws
By Andrew Ward in Washington
Updated: 12:12 a.m. ET May 10, 2007
Congress must agree an overhaul of US immigration laws within the next fortnight or risk leaving the status of the US's nearly 12m illegal immigrants unresolved until after the next presidential election, Democratic leaders warned on Wednesday.
The Senate is scheduled to start debating immigration legislation on Monday,following weeks of bipartisan negotiations aimed at finding consensus over one of the thorniest issues in US politics.
Arlen Specter, the moderate Republican senator for Pennsylvania, said this week the two parties were close to a "grand bargain" that would strengthen border security but also open an avenue for illegal immigrants to become legal.
Immigration is viewed as one of the few policy areas where there exists a chance of agreement between the Democratic-controlled Congress and Republican President George W. Bush, who holds more moderate views on the issue than much of his party.
For Mr Bush, immigration reform provides perhaps his last chance of a significant second-term legislative achievement after the failure of his push to overhaul the Social Security system.
But senior Democrats warned on Wednesday that there was only a brief opportunity in which to pass a bill before electoral politics makes a deal impossible.
"If it does not happen in the next two weeks, it probably will not happen under the administration of George Bush," said Ken Salazar, Democratic senator for Colorado. "It's time for it to happen now."
The Senate debate is expected to focus on proposals to offer visas to temporary workers and create a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the US.
Republicans have demanded that illegal immigrants must return to their native countries and pay a stiff financial penalty before being allowed to re-enter the US legally.
Both parties are cautious about agreeing any measures that could be viewed as an "amnesty" for illegal immigrants, amid rising anti-immigrant sentiment among manyvoters.
But the parties are anxious not to alienate the Hispanic community as it grows in political power.
Harry Reid, Senate majority leader, on Wednesday re-introduced an immigration reform bill that was approved by the Senate last year but blocked by the House of Representatives. However, he voiced hope that it would be replaced by new bipartisan legislation stemming from the recent negotiations.
Immigration reform has a better chance of success in the House since the Democratic takeover of Capitol Hill in last November's midterm election.
Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigration group, said the two parties were "inching closer" to compromise. "But the gap is still as wide as the Grand Canyon," she said.
Audrey Singer, immigration expert at the Brookings Institution, said: "The risk is that we're going to end up with a bill that nobody likes and we will spend a lot of time in future trying to fix it."