WASHINGTON — Six months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks postponed a brewing debate on immigration reform, the House today is expected to approve a measure backed by President Bush to help certain immigrants stay in the United States while they seek legal residency.
The House action comes after Bush prodded Republican leaders to pass the measure before he makes a four-day swing next week through Mexico, Peru and El Salvador.
The measure has strong bipartisan support in the Senate.
Under the bill, some foreigners who are now in the U.S. without legal permission would be able to stay if they pay a $1,000 fee and apply for residency by Nov. 30. Otherwise, they would be required to leave the country to file their applications; some could face a reentry ban of as long as 10 years.
The House bill, which is coupled with measures to toughen border security, would revive a temporary program that drew about 400,000 applicants before it expired April 30. To qualify, applicants had to be sponsored by an employer or a close family member from the U.S.
Most applicants were spouses of U.S. citizens or permanent residents; some got married in a rush to take advantage of the temporary provision.
Bush, who has sought to steer the Republican Party toward a policy of accommodation on immigration issues, backed an extension of the program after federal authorities were swamped with applications.
"We should spare families the hardship of separation while one member is awaiting a green card," Bush declared in July in a speech at Ellis Island, N.Y. The president urged swift action on the measure, but Congress delayed.
A scheduled House vote Sept. 11 was canceled as Congress set aside all business except responding to terrorism. Another attempt to move the measure through the House was quashed in late December after critics raised loud protests.
But the House leadership's decision to schedule a vote today was a clear signal that some tensions over immigration have eased. The measure will come up under rules that require a two-thirds majority for passage. It surpassed that threshold in a preliminary vote last May, 336 to 43.
"From its earliest days as a republic, the United States has been a nation of immigrants," said House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas). "The House vote . . . will send a message to the world that our country will continue to be a beacon to all who love freedom and the opportunity to live, work and raise a family."
Critics said the government should not be easing immigration rules at a time when the United States remains vulnerable to foreign attack.
"People will be given amnesty under this plan who may in fact even be potential terrorists," said Rep. Thomas G. Tancredo (R-Colo.), who heads a congressional group that advocates strict immigration limits. "We will not have the ability to do the background checks necessary. So it's a national security issue."
But Tancredo acknowledged his side probably lacked the votes to prevail.
Before the terrorist attacks, the Bush administration and Mexico had been discussing ways to expand legal cross-border movement--a theme likely to come up again when the president meets his Mexican counterpart next week.