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Irish Voice News
Senate Bill Survives Initial Test
May 24, 2007
By Debbie McGoldrick
THE Senate has begun a fierce debate over the immigration reform bill offered by a bipartisan group of senators last week with the blessing of the White House, a measure that has proven so divisive that internal party fissures, not to mention objections from labor and immigrant groups, have thrown the bill’s future chances of success into doubt.
However, on Tuesday evening the bill, officially known as the Secure Borders, Economic Oppor-tunity and Immigration Reform Act of 2007, overcame an amendment offered by Senator Byron Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota, to eliminate in its entirety the guest worker program, which offers 400,000 two-year visas on an annual basis.
The controversial provision mandates that the visa could be renewed up to three times, but the holder would have to return home for a year between renewals. Critics have charged that the program would depress wages and create a new group of undocumented workers reluctant to leave the country for a year to wait for renewal.
Dorgan’s amendment was defeated by a vote of 64-31, but among those voting in favor were Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who has expressed serious concern with the bill and said on Monday that instead of wrapping debate on the issue by the Memorial Day recess, as originally intended, members would take up the issue into June. Senator Hillary Clinton also joined Reid in favor of the Dorgan amendment.
The bill has been championed on the Senate side by Senator Edward Kennedy, who has been negotiating with Republican
colleagues and White House Officials for the past three months to craft a bill that all proponents agree is less than perfect, but provides the most realistic middle ground.
“Our plan is a compromise. It involved give and take in the best traditions of the United States Senate. For each of us who crafted it, there are elements that we strongly support and elements we believe could be improved. No one believes this is a perfect bill,” said Kennedy on Monday.
The bill, as has been well documented, offers legal status, via a new Z visa, to undocumented residents who can document presence in the U.S. prior to January 1 of this year. The Z visa would initially offer probationary status to the undocumented, who would have to pay an initial $1,000 fine, pass background checks and remain continuously employed.
After several years the Z visa holder would be permitted to apply for a green card by paying a $4,000 fine, showing proficiency in English, and returning to the home country to start the application process.
The bill also changes present immigration availability from a family based system to one based on economic need via a new merit system. Applicants for permanent residence would be awarded points based on their level of skill and education; they would also receive points based on any existing family ties in the U.S.
The new bill contains an array of border security enhancements that would have to be certified as workable before many of its other provisions could take effect. More than 300 pages in total, the bill has been both assailed and praised by politicians, labor groups and immigrant rights advocates.
It also has a long way to go before a final vote in the Senate next month. Senators from both parties plan on offering a wide variety of amendments, including one set for Wednesday, May 23 that would reduce the guest worker program in size from 400,000 to 200,000 offered by Senator Jeff Bingham, Democrat of New Mexico, and one from Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, which seeks to impose mandatory prison sentences for those caught crossing the border illegally.
“There is a real need to have a full and fair debate and an opportunity to offer amendments,” said Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, one of the Senate negotiators on the bill who tussled with party colleague John McCain in an expletive-filled exchange last week before the bill was unveiled.
Kennedy is aware of the many landmines that will have to be negotiated and compromised if the bill is to pass – but pass it must. “We all understand that we must have a comprehensive fix to our broken immigration system. Enforcement is critically important but enforcement alone will not work,” he said on Tuesday after the Dorgan amendment was defeated.
“I applaud my colleagues for taking action today in support of comprehensive reform and moving this landmark bill forward. This is our chance to finally fix our broken system – the urgency could not be more clear.”
President Bush is working behind the scenes to muster support for the Senate bill as it works its way through the debate. Should the Senate pass a bill House action awaits, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has expressed reservations about the elimination of the family preference green card categories, and has said she won’t open debate on a bill unless Bush can deliver 70 Republican votes in support.
“There’s good and bad in this,” said Reid on Tuesday. “That’s what amending the legislation is all about trying to improve it.”
Irish politicians, meanwhile, have reacted positively to the introduction of the bill and the debate that will unfold in the coming weeks.
Foreign Affairs Minister Dermot Ahern, according to Irish broadcaster RTE, said he was “very optimistic that an end was in sight for the plight of the undocumented Irish in the U.S.”
P.J. Bradley, a member of the North’s SDLP party who has been active on the undocumented Irish issue, was less optimistic. “The undocumented and their supporters have, as yet, no real cause for celebration as the outcome of the pending Senate debate remains uncertain,” Bradley said.
“The amount of criticism of the bipartisan deal from within both the Republican and Democratic parties is a cause for concern and even if the bill were to survive what has all the makings of a heated debate in the Senate, there is no guarantee that it will ever reach the House of Representatives.”
Paul Connaughton, Fine Gael’s spokesperson on emigrant affairs said, “I very much welcome this new initiative which would legalize the status of the thousands of undocumented Irish in the US. This deal has opened a small but significant window of opportunity for Irish emigrants, but I hope it won’t turn out to be a false dawn.”
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