New Life for Immigration Reform

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An immigration bill had looked dead on Capitol Hill for the rest of this election year, but a conservative Senator and House member have teamed up to offer a plan with new wrinkles that are likely to reignite debate about legislation, leadership aides tell TIME.

Republicans are watching their support slide in polls of Hispanics, and some strategists have concluded that GOP lawmakers cannot afford to hit the campaign trail this fall without having passed an immigration bill when their party controls the House, Senate and White House. Such a piece of legislation would also hand President Bush his biggest domestic accomplishment since his reelection, in the process satisfying business interests who want legal access to cheaper labor from south of the border.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) and Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), the chairman of the House's conservative caucus, plan to announce a plan Tuesday that fits the broad parameters of what Bush has proposed — border security plus a temporary worker program, without amnesty. But it includes several constraints aimed at appealing to the hard core of House Republicans who had been insisting on a security-only approach.

A novel element of the plan would encourage holders of the guest visas to return to their home countries by returning their Social Security contributions to them in a lump sum when they left. (Employer contributions would remain in the Social Security system.) Their Medicare contributions would go to a fund to reimburse hospitals for uncompensated emergency medical expenses, which are often cited by people arguing that illegal immigrants are burdening communities. Participants in the guest worker program would be granted what the authors call a "Good Neighbor SAFE Visa," with that acronym standing for "Secure Authorized Foreign Employee."

The first two years of the program would be dedicated to border security. Then, under a mechanism known as a trigger, the President could certify to Congress that the borders were secure and the temporary worker program would begin.

A House Republican leadership aide said members "are looking for a safe landing zone as far as a guest worker program that can't be defined as amnesty," and that the plan appeared to provide just that.

On the Senate side, a Republican leadership aide said that senators "are looking for an alternative" and that the Hutchison-Pence proposal "might be another way to keep the conversation on immigration moving forward." However, he said some senators were contemplating attaching a border-security measure to an appropriations bill, and said that might have a better chance of passing before the midterm elections in November.

The House passed a stringent border enforcement bill on Dec. 16 and the Senate passed a sweeping immigration reform on May 25. But the bills are from Mars and Venus, and many lawmakers have thought it would be impossible for a conference committee to work out their differences.

Hutchison and Pence tried to appeal to all the major factions by declaring in a joint comment accompanying their proposal: "Our plan puts border security first and cracks down on those who knowingly hire illegal workers, but it also recognizes the need for a temporary worker program that operates without amnesty and harnesses the power of the private sector to avoid creating a huge new government bureaucracy."

The new plan includes most of the major provisions of a plan that Pence, chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, had proposed in May. That plan, which contemplates privately run worker placement agencies called "Ellis Island Centers," got a major pat on the back on Sunday from House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), who said on "Fox News Sunday": "I'm prepared to bring some agreement if we can secure the border first." One change from the earlier Pence plan is that people would only be eligible if they were from countries that were parties to the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Central Americans Free Trade Agreement — Canada. Mexico, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic.

A major difference with Bush's original idea is that applicants would have to return to their home countries to apply for the visas. Critics of this idea say that many illegal immigrants would not take the risk of coming out of the shadows for such a measure. One sticking point between the House and Senate has been whether a guest worker program should provide a path to citizenship. The Hutchison-Pence plan would allow someone to remain permanently and legally after 17 years of steady employment and regular background checks.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a prime mover behind the Senate-passed bill, issued a statement saying that he was not satisfied with the new approach. "Unlike some in his party who would rather just play politics with immigration, Representative Pence has come to the table with substantive proposal," Kennedy said. "While I am encouraged by his willingness to compromise, I disagree with the plan. The only way we will secure our borders and break the cycle of illegality is to offer a path to citizenship for the millions of undocumented who are here and a temporary worker program for the future." Neither that nor the security-only approach, however, appears to be a path to passage of a bill. So Hutchison and Pence are trying for what they call a third way.