After 4 decades, changes coming in immigration law

Published May 18, 2007

A bipartisan group of senators reached a delicate compromise Thursday on what could be the biggest overhaul of immigration law in more than 40 years. The measure, which has the backing of the Bush administration, offers the nation's 12-million undocumented workers a route to legal status but would also bolster border patrols and enhance enforcement of rules for hiring aliens. In addition, the agreement shifts immigration preferences away from the extended families of citizens toward more skilled and educated workers.


- Undocumented workers who crossed into the country before Jan. 1 would be offered a temporary-residency permit while they await a new "Z visa" that would allow them to live and work lawfully here.

- The head of an illegal-immigrant household would have eight years to return to his or her home country to apply for permanent legal residence for members of the household, but each Z visa would be renewable indefinitely, as long as the holder passes a criminal background check, remains fully employed and pays a $5, 000 fine, plus a paperwork-processing fee.

- A separate temporary-worker program would be established for 400, 000 migrants a year. Each temporary work visa would be good for two years and could be renewed up to three times, as long as the worker leaves the country for a year between renewals.

- Work-site enforcement would include a tamperproof ID, probably a Social Security card, that some Senate aides said would have to be presented in combination with a passport or tamper-proof driver's license.

- The number of border agents would be boosted to about 18, 000 from a current level of about 12, 000; 200 miles of vehicle barriers and surveillance towers would be added along the border.

- The plan would reconfigure the system for future legal immigration, setting aside 40 percent of future visas to be allocated on a merit-based system that awards points for education and skills that are needed in the United States.

- A five-year pilot program would be created to legalize immigration status for those who have worked in U.S. agriculture for at least 150 days over the previous two years. The program would be capped at 1.5-million.

Family history

Since 1965, migrants have needed a sponsor in the United States, meaning that virtually all immigrants have had family members or employers already here. The new proposal would augment that system with a merit-based program that would award points based on education levels, work experience and English proficiency, as well as family ties. Automatic family unifications would remain but would be limited to spouses and children under 21. The adult children and siblings of U.S. residents would probably need other credentials, such as skills and education, to qualify for immigrant visas. A number of unskilled parents would be allowed in, but that flow would be capped.


Senators hope to bring the bill to the floor for debate and a vote next week before they leave for the Memorial Day holiday. Its passage is far from assured. The framework has the support of the White House and the chief negotiators - Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. - but immigration rights groups and some key Senate Democrats remain leery, especially of changing a preference system that has favored family members for more than 40 years.