WASHINGTON — A White House proposal for overhauling immigration laws would abandon the long-standing practice of admitting immigrants seeking to reunite with their families, instead giving preference to applicants based on the nation's employment needs.
The wide-ranging proposals to stem illegal immigration also include enforcement requirements that must be met before other changes can go forward. Those include posting 18,300 Border Patrol agents on the frontier with Mexico -- about a 53% increase -- and erecting more than four times the current amount of border fencing.
The GOP plan also states that anyone seeking jobs in the U.S., including citizens, probably will have to present secure identification in the future. And it outlines a special visa system for those already in the country without proper documents.
Republican lawmakers presented the ideas -- the initial results of a weeks-long collaborative effort with the White House -- to Democrats late Wednesday. The proposals are part of an effort to put a GOP stamp on legislation and win Republican support to pass a bipartisan bill in the Senate.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who was heavily involved in the GOP planning, called the presentation "a temperature taking." He added: "It's still very early, there will certainly be controversy."
The distance between the Republican and Democratic positions suggests rocky negotiations ahead. The two sides met Thursday night for talks that will continue through the congressional break next week.
On Thursday, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the lead Democrat on immigration, said that the GOP plan included issues they could agree on, such as enforcement, but that important issues remained unsettled.
Kennedy and other Democrats argue that giving illegal immigrants a path to earn citizenship is essential and say future guest workers should be able to gain legal status as well. Republicans strenuously object.
Referring to those positions and his support for admission policies driven by the goal of family reunification, Kennedy emphasized that immigration policy involved special moral obligations to treat people well.
"This is unique," said Kennedy, chairman of the Senate immigration subcommittee. "You don't compromise on the morality of these issues, and we're not going to."
Immigrant advocacy groups condemned the GOP plan. "What we've seen is neither passable or workable," said Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum. "The direction they're going in is a serious step back."
The Republican effort was driven by President Bush's desire "to develop a proposal with members of Congress that will be supported by a broad bipartisan majority," said White House spokesman Scott M. Stanzel.
A general outline of the plan obtained by the Los Angeles Times indicates that one of the most significant changes would be to rework the criteria for who is allowed to immigrate, which the plan said currently "favors those lucky enough to have a relative here." Of the 1.1 million visas issued in 2005, 58% went to relatives. The plan would immediately redirect 50,000 visas to "merit-based and national-need categories" that take into account education, training and language ability, among other things.
"We're in a global competition," Cornyn said. "We have to look at what's best for us. It's part of what a sound immigration policy would do."
The limited number of visas currently available means that families trying be reunited legally can wait for decades. The issue is a core one for Democrats, who would increase the number of visas for families.
"So many of those who are brought in as families ... play a very significant part of economic life of this country," Kennedy said. "Family reunification is very important."
The plan also emphasizes border security, verification that workers are legal residents, a guest worker program and bringing illegal immigrants "out of the shadows." The plan states: "These immigrants are in violation of U.S. law and must be treated differently from lawful arrivals."
The estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. would be allowed to apply for a "Z Visa" that would be renewable every three years. Applicants would have to pay $3,500 with each renewal, some of which would be shared with localities as an "impact fee." Z Visa holders would be eligible for emergency social services, and primary and secondary education.
If illegal immigrants wanted to begin the process of applying for citizenship, they would receive no special preference, and would have to pay $2,000 when they applied for a legal permanent resident visa, or green card, and $8,000 when they were approved. The standard fee for citizenship applications is set to rise from $400 to $675 in June.
Household heads would have to leave the country and reenter to complete the process, with their reentry guaranteed by their Z Visa.