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Senate set to debate immigration overhaul

Kennedy calls compromise bill tough but fair

Worker Juan Carlos Vazquez reacted to the immigration reform proposal Friday in Los Angeles. A new program is supposed to help employers verify that document holders are who they say. (Damian Dovarganes/associated press)

WASHINGTON -- Many aspects of the Senate's immigration overhaul pose enormous implementation challenges, and the consequences would be felt not just by an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants but by every US employer, worker, and new legal immigrant in coming years.

Changes would require careful calibration to meet changing labor market needs and human responses, all on a scale never before attempted, immigration lawyers, business lobbyists, former US officials, and policy analysts said.

Senate debate was scheduled to start today on the compromise bill, in the last week before Memorial Day vacation.

In some ways, border security improvements that would have to be made by a December 2008 deadline are the easy part, according to Dawn M. Lurie, bar liaison for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. The US Citizenship and Immigration Services agency has been "overburdened and pretty much dysfunctional," she said.

"I read this [bill] and say this is hysterical. How is it going to be implemented? It's crazy," said Lurie, who praised the bill's general intent.

The Senate measure gives the Department of Homeland Security 18 months to expand nationwide to all 7 million US employers an improved version of a program to check Social Security numbers against government databases, to weed out illegal workers. The program is now used voluntarily by 6,000 companies.

However, a pilot program was prone to false alarms, with as many as 20 percent of noncitizens and 13 percent of citizens sent for follow-up visits to immigration offices.

The new version is supposed to help employers verify that document holders are who they say they are by letting them download digital photographs, but it might not be entirely workable in a massive deployment, said Laura Foote Reiff, a lawyer who represents the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition of service industries.

Also, in three years all companies would have to recheck identification and Social Security documents for all 140 million US workers, including citizens. Security mix-ups could block Americans from their work.

Meanwhile, the DHS would be gearing up to launch the biggest pieces of the plan -- a "Y visa" for 400,000 temporary workers and a "Z visa" for up to 12 million illegal immigrants who entered the United States before the start of this year.

The Y visa for guest workers would be good for two years and could be renewed three times, as long as the worker leaves the country for a year between renewals.

Under the four-year renewable Z visa program, employed illegal immigrants could apply for a temporary permit, then stay in the United States after paying a $5,000 fine and a $1,500 processing fee and passing a criminal background check. Heads of illegal-immigrant households would have eight years to return to their home countries for a chance to apply for permanent residency for household members.

In 1986, only about 3 million immigrants applied for legal status. That leaves about 9 million to register in 18 months.

The compromise bill could move slowly through the Senate because of expected amendments, minority leader Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, said yesterday on ABC's "This Week." The plan's prospects in the House are uncertain.

In Columbia, S.C., on Saturday, the crowd at the Republican state convention cheered when former Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts criticized the bill. "One simple rule: No amnesty," Romney said.

Yesterday, two Cabinet secretaries promoted the immigration deal and played down criticism it would reward people who illegally have entered the country.

"It's not amnesty. They're going to have to pay a penalty," Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said on CNN's "Late Edition." "They're going to have to wait in line. They're going to have to undergo a criminal background check."

"What we've done is we've come up with a solution that doesn't allow these people to jump the line in terms of getting a green card," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said on the same program. "Everybody who has been on line waiting patiently gets ahead of them."

Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the lead Democratic negotiator, said the bill would create "a tough but fair path to citizenship" for millions of immigrants.

"The bill isn't exactly the way I would have written it, but it is a strong compromise and the best chance we will have to finally fix this broken system," he said. "The price of inaction is too high."

Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.