It took millions of people marching in the streets, a prime-time address by President Bush and months of wrangling, but the Senate finally approved a comprehensive immigration-reform package on Thursday (May 25).
The legislation cleared the Senate by a 62-36 vote and was passed after politicians refused many last-minute "poison-pill" amendments intended to kill it.
But, despite elation over achieving closure on the battle to implement a guest-worker program and increase security, the measure still faces an uncertain future. Senators must now prepare to negotiate with their colleagues in the House, which proposed a much harsher bill in December (see "The Immigration Debate: Behind The Protests").
The House version, which called for more than 700 miles of new security fencing along the Mexico-U.S. border — more than twice as much as the Senate proposed — did not contain a guest-worker program and would impose felony penalties on the country's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.
Republican Senator John McCain, whose home state of Arizona shares a lengthy border with Mexico, supported the Senate bill and told CBS's "The Early Show" Thursday that he's looking forward to finding some middle ground. "I hope that we can sit down with our colleagues on the House side and work out a good, strong compromise that is comprehensive in nature. And I'm guardedly confident we can do that," McCain said.
Other senators sent the message that not coming to an agreement isn't an option. "To those who believe that no bill is a good answer: You're dead wrong," said staunchly conservative Republican Senator Lindsey Graham. "To do nothing is a political loser."
Many critics of the impasse see the major sticking point between the two competing proposals as deeply rooted in election-year politics. House members have tagged the Bush-backed guest-worker program as a form of "amnesty" for illegal immigrants, which they say encourages more illegal immigration and rewards people who have jumped ahead in line. Bush has repeatedly denied that the guest-worker program is amnesty and has sent his chief aide, Karl Rove, to the House twice in the past few weeks to meet with members and attempt to bridge the gap.
According to CBS News, conservative House Republicans fear that giving up too much ground in the upcoming negotiations could anger conservative voters and lead to defeat in the November midterm elections.
The Senate legislation — which was almost derailed at the last minute by an effort to kill it — provides a guest-worker program for low-skilled immigrants, a new program for 1.5 million temporary farm workers and a stricter employer-sanctions plan that would require electronic verification of legal status for all new hires and tag businesses that hire illegal workers with a maximum fine of $20,000.
The Senate's new guest-worker program provides entry to the U.S. to 200,000 people per year. Once they arrive, they will be able to petition for a green card that would allow them legal permanent residency.
Under the proposal, illegal immigrants who have been in the country five years or more can remain, continue working and eventually become legal, permanent residents and citizens after they pay at least $3,250 in fines, settle back taxes and learn English. Those who've been here illegally between two and five years would have to go to a border crossing and fill out an application to return, and those who've been here less than two years would have to leave with no guarantee of return.
Illegal immigrants convicted of a felony or three misdemeanors would be deported no matter how long they've been in the U.S. The bill would also authorize 370 miles of new triple-layered fencing and 500 miles of vehicle barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border, the hiring of an additional 1,000 border-patrol agents this year and the backing of Bush's plan to deploy the National Guard to the border. And, after a vigorous debate the past few weeks about making English the official language of the U.S., the bill would declare English the country's national language.
As a sign that a compromise might be able to be hammered out, on Tuesday, House conservative leader Mike Pence floated a proposal that would permit legal re-entry of illegal immigrants but provide no path to citizenship, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
The House bill currently has no provisions for eventual legal residency or citizenship for illegal immigrants and no new temporary guest-worker program.
In addition to making it a felony for illegal immigrants to be in the U.S., the House version also makes it a felony to assist anyone trying to enter or remain in the country illegally.
Head to Immigration: The Great Divide? for all we've got on the immigration debate.