A Compromise Plan on Immigration

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OMAR TORRES / AFP / GETTY IMAGES

Mexican immigrants walk through the Arizona desert as they attempt to illegally cross the Mexican-US border in April.

With the Senate headed toward a final vote on an immigration bill this week, a leader of House conservatives is asking his colleagues to support a free-market plan aimed at bridging the gulf between the versions in the two chambers. The proposal by Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), provided to TIME ahead of an unveiling speech at the Heritage Foundation, is arguably less compassionate than the version being debated in the Senate and supported in principle by President George W. Bush. But it looks to be more palatable to House Republicans, many of whom have opposed creating a guest worker program before new border crackdowns have been given a chance to work.

Pence, a rising star in the House, is suggesting a temporary worker program based on a database run by private industry. And unlike the leading plan in the Senate and the blueprint sketched by Bush, his “Border Integrity and Immigration Reform Act” would require all applicants to leave the country first. Pence tweaks a phrase from Bush’s address to the nation by calling the compromise “a REAL rational middle ground.” Even though Bush has said his preferred solution “ain’t amnesty,” Pence appeals to hard-liners by calling the compromise a “no-amnesty solution.”

“The solution is to set up a system that will encourage illegal aliens to self-deport and come back legally as guest workers,” Pence, the grandson of an Irish immigrant, says in prepared remarks. “The visa will be issued only outside of the United States. Outside of the United States. That is a key point because it is the provision that will require the 12 million illegal aliens to leave. Now, some of you are thinking to yourselves that 12 million people aren’t going to pack up and leave just to get a visa to come back legally. But, I believe most will.”

The leading Senate plan would allow workers who have been in the country five years to remain as guest workers, on the theory that they have deep ties to their community. Those in the United States two to five years would have to go to a border crossing to apply, and those here less than two years would have to return to their home countries to be considered. Bush has not endorsed particulars, but said in his address to the nation that it makes sense to differentiate between “an illegal immigrant who crossed the border recently, and someone who has worked here for many years, and has a home, a family, and an otherwise clean record.”

Pence, a lawyer and former radio and television host, is chairman of the Republican Study Committee, the caucus of House conservatives, but the group did not offer the plan because it’s split on how to handle immigration overhaul. Pence’s official biography calls him “a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order.”

His plan includes all the security measures of the bill that has already passed the House, and adds a provision for guest worker visas would be good for two years. A limited renewal would be available if the worker studied English and passed an English proficiency class. Federal law already has visa categories A through V. “The visas will be referred to as ‘W Visas,’ ” Pence say in his remarks. “No kidding. I think it is obvious whose support we are trying to garner here.”

Pence’s measure would create private worker placement agencies called Ellis Island Centers, licensed by the federal government to match approved guest workers with jobs that cannot be filled by Americans — a variation on an idea offered by Bush back in January 2004. “U.S. employers will engage the private agencies and request guest workers,” Pence says. “In a matter of days, the private agencies will match guest workers with jobs, perform a health screening, fingerprint them and provide the appropriate information to the FBI and Homeland Security so that a background check can be performed, and provide the guest worker with a visa granted by the State Department.”

Bush said Monday in Chicago that he understands the emotions about immigration, and that it is “a tough issue for members to vote on.” He promised that if he disagrees with someone, he is “not going to debase them in the public arena.” The question is how hard he will lean on them in private. And whether an illegal worker will leave the shadows, if they also have to leave the country.

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