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Some see hope in immigration talks

GOP efforts with the White House to craft a proposal are viewed as a sign of progress in resolving the issue.

March 14, 2007|Nicole Gaouette | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — As President Bush uses his Latin American trip to call for an overhaul of U.S. immigration law, GOP lawmakers are working with his administration to draft a proposal that could win enough Republican support to settle the thorny issue.

Republican lawmakers are looking at how to improve the way businesses verify that employees are legal residents, how to set up a guest worker program, and how to deal with illegal immigrants in the country.

The discussions are taking place as Democrats shift gears on their immigration legislation to try to win more Republican support.

Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), a conservative who will play an active role in immigration overhaul, says he sees progress.

"There's a lot of discussion now with the White House about the details ... that give me some optimism that we may be actually able to agree on legislation and that we could get Democratic members to agree to it as well and get it passed by the end of the year," he said.

Though there is widespread bipartisan desire to repair the nation's immigration system, it isn't clear when a bill will emerge in the Senate. And there is still no agreement on what exactly should be done -- an issue that divided the GOP during last year's debate.

The flurry of backstage activity reflects a concern among lawmakers of all stripes that they get the legislation right, said Angela Kelley of the National Immigration Forum in Washington. "The stakes are so very high," she said. "This is a critical domestic policy issue, and I don't think it's too much to say the eyes of the nation are on lawmakers. Simplistic sound bites like 'Deport everybody' are not going to fly this time around."

In Guatemala on Monday, Bush said finding a position that "most Republicans are comfortable with" would provide the key to success. He said it was important to take the time to do that.

"The initial stages of getting a bill that meets objections is time-consuming, but it is worth it and necessary in order for us to be able to address the concerns," he said.

Last year, the Senate passed broad immigration legislation that Bush largely backed. But the House passed its own enforcement-only bill.

Some observers warned that the White House initiative had potential risks.

"The White House is involved at a level they haven't been in the past," said Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. "Is it a risky strategy? Of course. It could result in greater polarization instead of a bigger bipartisan majority. But if it works, it will be a major coup."

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the lead Democrat on Senate immigration legislation, also moved to bolster bipartisan support with a decision Friday to abandon a draft under discussion in favor of the bill the judiciary committee passed last year, 12 to 6, with backing from four out of 10 Republicans on the committee.

The committee bill included increased border security infrastructure and staffing; a mandatory worker verification program to be used by employers within five years; tough restrictions on legal immigrants and asylum seekers; fewer restrictions on family visas; more job-based visas; a guest worker program; and a way to allow eligible illegal immigrants to gain legal status.

Kennedy and his Senate partner on the bill, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), had disagreed on labor protections in new legislation they were writing. With presidential politics increasingly likely to distract from and possibly distort debate, Kennedy chose to take up last year's committee bill.

"It's all about speed," said Laura Capps, Kennedy's spokeswoman. "Sen. Kennedy believes this is the shortest course of action, to start where they left off. There's a strong push to get this done this year."

The administration has been talking to Republicans across the political spectrum on immigration. They have two basic aims: One is simply to increase the number of Republicans backing immigration reform; the other is to hedge against the impact of a Democratic-controlled House.

Last year, Senate Republicans knew that any bill they passed would go to the House -- filled with lawmakers hawkish on immigration -- and would take on more conservative language. Now, any bill that emerges from the Senate could well move to the left in the House.

That dynamic is a factor as the Republicans discuss their core elements of reform: border security, a temporary worker program that does not lead to citizenship, and worker verification.

Kyl said Tuesday that many of the ideas being tossed around involved demonstrating how well they could show "they mean business" on those issues before addressing a fourth core issue: the question of what to do about people here illegally.

"Some members have the idea of a trigger," Kyl said, "that says once we can demonstrate that we have put programs in place to have a good temporary worker program, that we've put programs in place to determine worker eligibility, that we've put programs in place to gain control of the border, then we feel more confident about beginning to process changing status of people who are here illegally."

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