WASHINGTON _ The stage is set for one of the most contentious congressional debates in a decade: whether to legalize up to 11 million illegal migrants or compel them to leave the country.
Heading into a congressional election year, though, politics may trump policy, with nothing getting done.
President Bush, in his State of the Union address, repeated his proposal that Congress should pass a temporary worker program for illegals _ allowing them to stay in the country and work legally for a period of time to be determined. His plan avoids use of the term “amnesty,'' a code word for green cards that would eventually make them eligible for citizenship.
Many in Congress, however, oppose Bush's proposal _ especially many conservative Republicans who view even a temporary worker program as amnesty and are lining up against the president. Moderate Republicans and many Democrats want a bill that would enable illegals to seek green cards.
The debate, expected to begin in March and last months, marks the most sweeping effort to amend immigration law since 1996 when Congress made it mandatory to deport foreign nationals convicted of aggravated felonies. If reform leads to some form of status for illegals, it would be the most extensive revamp in 20 years _ since a 1986 amnesty under President Reagan made about 2.7 million illegal migrants eligible for green cards.
Whether opposing sides will compromise, especially in a midterm election year, is hard to predict. Interviews with several key senators, representatives, their aides, Bush administration officials and immigration experts reveal several possible scenarios _ including one in which reform fails, leaving the illegals in hiding.
In another, the Senate approves a temporary worker bill that eventually makes some illegals eligible for green cards under strict conditions that would require sponsorship by a business and some knowledge of English and U.S. history.
Another scenario calls for only a temporary worker program, without green cards _ along with tougher border enforcement and a requirement that illegals leave the country first to claim their work permits.
Those watching from the sidelines _ experts on immigration in their own right _ say it's likely nothing will happen, that the status quo will prevail despite a flurry of lobbying from both sides.
“At the first hint of a stalemate in the Senate and the House, Congress may try to pass the elections first and delay this to 2007,'' said John Keeley, director of communications for the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that favors immigration controls.
One leading pro-immigration advocate agreed. She said the charged political atmosphere may preclude consensus on such a polarizing issue.
“It could be that nothing happens,'' said Angela Kelly, deputy director for the National Immigration Forum. “It all depends on whether it happens close to the elections or not.''
Ira Kurzban, a Miami lawyer who is considered a national authority on immigration law, said he believes legislation will pass _ but it may feature only toughened laws that could reduce the rights of immigrants.
“It's too early to tell what will happen in the end,'' Kurzban said. “But it seems like the people pushing enforcement have the upper hand at this point.''
Kurzban was referring to people like Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., the lawmaker with the most influence on the immigration debate _ at least for now, because his bill is the first to pass either house of Congress.
On Dec. 16, the House passed Sensenbrenner's bill 239-182 to establish criminal penalties for illegal migrants, compel verification of whether foreign employees are legally in the country, build fences along portions of the Mexican border and toughen laws under which convicted foreigners can be deported.
Sensenbrenner's bill is devoid of a temporary worker program, but Sensenbrenner is not opposed to such a proposal _ as long as illegals leave the country to get permits.
“I'm not philosophically opposed to a guest worker program,'' Sensenbrenner said.
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Veteran congressional aides believe the Senate eventually will pass a bill featuring legalization, though it could stop at only temporary work permits without a link to green cards.
If the bill that prevails features only a temporary worker program, then Republican Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and Jon Kyl of Arizona may emerge as the Senate's immigration bill managers.
But if a bill containing a bridge to green cards passes, then Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz.; Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.; and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., would be the likely Senate leaders in the debate because their bills offer illegals the ability to apply for permanent residence.
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Congressional aides said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., is working on an immigration bill that would tighten enforcement. Also working on his own bill is Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Several influential senators have expressed support for Specter's work-in-progress, including Republican Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida and Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who have jointly issued a set of immigration reform principles they support.
Both would give illegals status _ Martinez with certain strict conditions and Obama more liberally.
“To fix the illegal immigration problem we have to recognize that there has to be a way to account for the 11 million plus people that are already here, unaccounted for, working for the most part,'' Martinez said.
He rejected the notion of forcing illegals to leave the country to seek permits abroad. “I believe that is not workable or feasible,'' he said. But Martinez echoed President Bush's rejection of a guest worker program that leads to amnesty.
“They have to pay a penalty. They have to go back to the line for citizenship. They have to have … hoops that they'd have to go through,'' he said.
In a joint letter to Specter Dec. 15, Martinez and Obama proposed offering temporary work permits after payment of a fine and without excluding access to green cards.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who has not endorsed any pending comprehensive Senate immigration bill except one that would allow the children of illegal immigrants to seek residence, said it's impossible to predict what kind of immigration reform bill may prevail.
Nelson said he leans toward legislation that permits all or some of the illegals “who have had certain years of residence and can show gainful employment to apply for legal status.''
Sensenbrenner said that for comprehensive immigration reform to prevail, all sides will have to concede something. “Whether that's going to happen or not, I don't know.''
ILLEGAL MIGRANTS IN THE UNITED STATES
A recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington D.C. estimated the number of illegal migrants in the United States at 10.3 million, with about 850,000 in Florida. Here are the study highlights:
- Almost one in four illegal immigrants live in California _ followed by 14 percent in Texas, 9 percent in Florida and 7 percent in New York.
- Most arrived after 1990.
- The majority, or about 57 percent, are from Mexico, followed by 24 percent from other Latin American countries _ mostly in Central America; 9 percent from Asia, 6 percent from Canada and Europe and 4 percent from Africa and other countries.
- Illegal migrants work mostly in agriculture, construction, restaurants and other service industries.
- Average annual income: about $12,000.