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Some Don't See Bill as a `Breakthrough'

The Senate proposal would create tiered hurdles for illegal immigrants, which makes critics fear a boon for counterfeiters.

April 07, 2006|Nicole Gaouette | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Under a proposal forged by senators that would treat illegal immigrants differently depending on the length of their stay in the United States, those here for more than two years could work toward citizenship. Those here for less than two years would have to leave the country.

But while some in the Senate hailed it as a "breakthrough," law enforcement officials, border-town mayors and immigrants living in California asked how the proposal would be enforced -- predicting that immigrants would not come forward and declaring that the measure would produce a boon for counterfeiters as people scrambled to produce documents showing long-term residency.

"I have to tell you, trying to distinguish between immigrants who have been here for two years or five years or more will be very cumbersome," said Ray Borane, mayor of the Arizona border town of Douglas.

"There will be money to be made," added Borane, who said the proposal reminded him of the amnesty offered to undocumented immigrants in 1986. "This will create a whole other underground. People will be scurrying around trying to get letters written saying they've been here for a long while."

On the bustling outskirts of Westminster's Little Saigon, shop proprietor Trang Hoang was skeptical about the proposal. "I think in the long run, it will only lead to more people being smuggled in," she said.

And law enforcement officials wondered how they would deport the estimated 1 million to 2 million people who under the proposal would have to return to their home countries.

"To find people who are here and don't want to leave is like a manhunt," said one federal law enforcement officer, who asked not to be named because he was not authorized to talk with the media. "They're on the run, it takes time, it takes money, they hide -- and there's a lot of space in this country. It will take a huge amount of resources to make sure [deportation] happens."

The Senate plan is the brainchild of two Republicans: Mel Martinez of Florida and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. It was created as an alternative to a proposal that called for giving nearly all of the country's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants a way to become citizens -- an idea that conservative Republicans rejected as an amnesty that would undermine the rule of law.

Under the Hagel-Martinez compromise, all residents in the United States illegally would have to come forward and register with the Department of Homeland Security within six months of the bill becoming law.

Illegal immigrants here for five years or more would be able to work toward citizenship without leaving the country, as long as they passed background checks, paid taxes and fines, passed an English language requirement, understood American civics and registered for military selective service, among other requirements.

They would first get a nonimmigrant visa for six years, after which they could apply to become legal permanent residents. After five years under that status, they could apply to become citizens.

People who entered the country illegally between two and five years ago would also be allowed to work toward citizenship, but with greater hurdles. After applying for a work visa, they would have to leave the country briefly to finish the visa process. They would need to report to a border point of entry to be photographed and fingerprinted and receive their visa.

They would have three years to apply for a three-year temporary work visa, but it could be renewed only once.

Senators and staffers estimated the process would take a day at most, describing it as a "touch toe" step. It would apply only to the heads of immigrant households, not spouses or children. Once these immigrants crossed back into the United States, they could immediately apply for legal permanent residency, but the process could take as long as eight years, Senate aides said. Citizenship would probably take a total of 13 years.

If the head of an immigrant household who had been here for more two years met the requirements and was working, then his or her spouse and children would be covered in the legalization process. But no illegal immigrant would be processed for legal permanent residency before any legal applicant already in line, aides from both parties said.

Illegal immigrants who arrived after Jan. 7, 2004 -- when President Bush delivered a speech outlining his vision for immigration reform -- would have to leave the country.

Senate negotiators chose the cutoff date to preempt a surge of people from crossing the border during congressional debate.

Lawmakers said that improved work site enforcement would make it hard for those immigrants who tried to stay in the shadows to find work. The Senate bill would add 10,000 new internal enforcement agents over the next five years, and employers would be required to use a verification program to make sure employees were eligible to work.

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