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Inside Politics

Immigration breakthrough could pave way for citizenship

Story Highlights

• Speaker Pelosi wants Bush to guarantee 70 votes in the House
• Bipartisan group crafts bill that gives immigrants a path to citizenship
• Immediate work authorization for those who arrived before January 1, 2007
• Homeland Security feels the plan can strengthen border security
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States could be put on the path to citizenship under a new immigration bill agreed upon Thursday by a bipartisan group of senators.

"The agreement we just reached is the best possible chance we will have to secure our borders, bring millions of people out of the shadows and into the sunshine of America," Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts said.

President Bush expressed gratitude to the senators for their work. (Watch the balancing act politicians face from population changes and a backlash Video)

"I really am anxious to sign a comprehensive immigration bill as soon as I possibly can," he told reporters outside the White House. "Today, we took a good step toward this direction."

The bill is going to the Senate next week and if it passes, will then proceed to the House.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has told the White House that she's not going to bring the issue to the floor unless the president can deliver at least 70 Republican votes.

Republican Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said the bill is not a done deal.

He said he has "concerns with the principles outlined in today's announcement."

"I believe today's announcement is somewhat premature because specific legislative text has yet to be drafted on a number of key details," Cornyn said in a statement. "Until I have the opportunity to review this text, I will withhold from making more detailed comments."

The 380-page bill, which comes after nearly three months of negotiations, would give immediate work authorization to undocumented workers who arrived in the United States before January 1, 2007.

Heads of household would have to return to their home country within eight years, and they would be guaranteed the right to return.

Applicants would also have to pay a $5,000 penalty.

Additionally, the number of Border Patrol agents would be doubled, border fencing would be strengthened and employers who hire undocumented workers would face fines.

The process of enforcing those provisions would take about 18 months, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said.

After the provisions are in place, a guest worker program would be initiated, under which 400,000 temporary workers per year would be granted a "Y" visa.

The two-year visas would require they return home for a year, then allow them to re-enter for an additional two years. The process could be repeated twice more.

Each year, they would be able to bring their families on 30-day visitor visas, and each year, they would earn points toward a merit-based green card.

Specter: This is not amnesty

"It is not amnesty," said Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. "This will restore the rule of law."

Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona called the bill "a first step, but an important first step, to moving forward with comprehensive overall immigration reform."

"I'm sure that there are certain provisions that each of us would not agree with, but this is what the legislative process is all about," said Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson of Georgia. (Watch senators explain how the bill works Video)

Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California acknowledged that not everyone will be pleased with the bill's treatment of the immigration issue.

"To the American people, I would say, 'Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good,' " she said.

She said the bill would ensure that border security is strong and that farmers -- who depend largely on an undocumented work force -- will be able to find workers.

"From my perspective, it's not perfect, but it represents the best opportunity that we have, in a bipartisan way, to do something about this problem," said Republican Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said the bill started out being about how to deal with illegal immigration "and wound up being about what it means to be an American ... I think we've got a deal that reflects who we are as Americans."

He added, "From the Ph.D. to the landscaper, there's a chance for you to participate in the American dream on our terms in a way that makes this country better."

Graham predicted the bill would find "overwhelming" support among lawmakers.

Debate on the bill is slated to get under way in the Senate on Monday, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said she wants passage of a bill before August.

Bush: Immigration a tough issue for a lot of Americans

Bush described immigration as "a tough issue for a lot of Americans," but added, "The agreement reached today is one that will help enforce our borders but, equally importantly, it will treat people with respect.

"This is a bill where people who live here in our country will be treated without amnesty but without animosity." (Watch Bush praise bipartisanship of senators) Video

That view was challenged by Republican Rep. Brian Bilbray of California, chairman of the Immigration Reform Caucus.

"The 'compromise' announced today by Sen. Kennedy will reward 12 million illegal immigrants with a path to citizenship -- what part of illegal does the Senate not understand?" he said in a written statement.

"Any plan that rewards illegal behavior is amnesty."

The American Immigration Lawyers Association decried the proposal as "large-scale social experimentation," singling out the guest worker program as one that would preclude a path to permanent residence for new temporary workers.

"A practical solution for the undocumented population is an enormously important step in the right direction," the association said in a written statement. "But the cost of fixing our current problems cannot be the creation of bigger problems in the future."

But Chertoff told CNN that the bill would help him better focus his resources.

"Right now, I've got my Border Patrol agents and my immigration agents chasing maids and landscapers. I want them to focus on drug dealers and terrorists. It seems to me, if I can get the maids and landscapers into a regulated system and focus my law enforcement on the terrorists and the drug dealers, that's how I get a safe border."


THE PROPOSAL

ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS:
• Those who arrived before January 1, 2007, will be given immediate work authorization, granted a "Z" visa and put on path to permanent residence.
• Head of household must return to home country within 8 years. They will be guaranteed back in.
• Penalty: $5000, staggered

ENFORCEMENT:
• Double border patrol, new security perimeter, border fence.

GUEST/TEMPORARY WORKERS:
• Guest worker program cannot begin until enforcement provision is in place.
• 400,000 temporary workers per year enter on two-year visas, must return home for a year then re-enter for additional two years. They may come three times.
• Earn points toward merit-based green card.
• May bring families on 30-day visitor visas each year.

Source: Sen. Edward Kennedy's office
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