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Kennedy, McCain try again on immigration

Bill would keep fence, but ease way to citizenship

WASHINGTON -- Senators Edward M. Kennedy and John McCain are set to introduce a revised version of their sweeping plan to overhaul the nation's immigration laws, in a bill that's likely to restart a tense debate in Congress.

The measure, which is being drafted in consultation with the White House, will largely mirror the immigration bill that stalled last year, according to lawmakers and aides involved in the process. That measure was blocked primarily because House Republican leaders were adamantly opposed to provisions that would have allowed undocumented immigrants to become US citizens.

Though negotiations are still ongoing, this year's bill will most likely leave in place the 700-mile border fence, the creation of which was signed into law last year. It would also double the size of the US Border Patrol and add new means to crack down on employers who hire undocumented immigrants, a further attempt to assuage concerns about the nation's porous borders.

But the bill is likely to enrage advocates of a get-tough approach to immigration by allowing most of the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants already in this country to earn legalized status. Early drafts of the bill would allow them to become citizens after about 12 years if they meet requirements such as learning English, passing a criminal background check, and paying back taxes and a $2,000 fine.

"Those who have lived here, who have basically played by the rules, worked hard . . . they, I believe, ought to be able to adjust their status," said Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat. "This is a complex issue and demands a comprehensive approach. I don't expect it to be easy sledding."

The bill, set to be introduced in the House and Senate as soon as next week, will also include a "guest worker" program for immigrants to work in the United States under temporary visas -- an oft-stated goal of President Bush.

The Bush administration is dispatching Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez to testify at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the issue today -- appearances that will be closely watched for signals from the White House. Chertoff and Gutierrez have also been meeting privately with key lawmakers to discuss the legislation.

A wide range of Democratic and Republican lawmakers have said the White House must assert itself in crafting the bill for it to have any chance of passing Congress this year. McCain, an Arizona Republican, said the Bush administration's involvement is a big boost.

"There's active participation," McCain said. "There's a window of opportunity. I don't know when it becomes impossible, but I know that this is the greatest opportunity -- right now, in the next several months."

After years of stops and starts, the package now being finalized aims to strike a delicate balance. Supporters are emphasizing the added border security measures, hoping to convince skeptical lawmakers that only a broadly written bill that tackles several tough issues can get through Congress.

"Politically it's certainly easier to deal with the other aspects of comprehensive reform if we deal with the border stuff as well," said Representative Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who will co-sponsor the House version of the Kennedy-McCain bill.

Congressional leaders have put immigration on a fast track -- tacit acknowledgment that time is short for legislative action before the 2008 presidential campaign consumes the nation's political energy. Still, several aspects of the bill remain unresolved among the primary sponsors, and several other significant points are almost certain to be altered significantly later in the legislative process.

The bill's sponsors are looking to jettison the three-tiered approach to citizenship included in last year's measure, which allowed undocumented immigrants who have been in the United States the longest to take a far easier path to citizenship than newer arrivals.

That system would have made it all but impossible for anyone with fewer than two years' residence in the country to gain citizenship -- a circumstance that some officials warned would probably have kept the status of a substantial number of immigrants unclear.

The bill's sponsors are still discussing whether to require undocumented immigrants to register at a US port of entry in order to qualify for citizenship. Though some immigrant-rights groups warn that meeting that qualification would be a burden for low-income families, many conservatives insist the so-called "touch back" is legitimate and should be a part of the citizenship process.

"It's a way to avoid the amnesty concerns, and avoid people breaking in line ahead of those who have been waiting outside of the country to enter legally," said Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican with ties to the White House.

Though Republicans no longer control the congressional agenda, the Democrats still need their support, and GOP leadership is not on board for a comprehensive reform bill -- a major stumbling block that could slow or stop final passage again this year.

"My view -- which I think reflects a majority of our conference -- is that you can't have a bill that creates a path to citizenship for people who came to the country illegally," said Representative Roy Blunt of Missouri, Republican whip.

But Flake said last fall's election, where several hard-line immigration foes went down in defeat, showed Republicans the importance of an approach to the problem that addresses all the major concerns. "There are a lot of Republicans who just want this issue behind us," he said.