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Senate shrinks guest worker plan

Published May 24, 2007


WASHINGTON - The Senate slashed the size of a proposed guest worker program for foreign laborers Wednesday, dealing the first real blow to a fragile overhaul of the nation's immigration laws since it reached the Senate floor this week.

The bipartisan 74-24 vote trimmed a program that could have admitted as many as 600, 000 laborers a year down to 200, 000, a level that proponents said would minimize the risk that participants would depress wages and replace U.S. workers.

The Bush administration had strongly opposed the amendment, dispatching Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez to declare before the vote that the measure "would eliminate ... critical flexibility" in the program and shrivel it to an inadequate size.

But 27 Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., joined Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and 45 other Democrats in rebuffing that plea. Democratic Florida Sen. Bill Nelson supported the bill; Republican Sen. Mel Martinez opposed it.

"There are a variety of jobs that may be filled by guest workers, from construction to hotel service, and we shouldn't be placing American workers in the position of competing with an unlimited number of guest workers, " said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., the amendment's author.

The bipartisan negotiators who created the immigration bill said the blow to what they call their "grand bargain" will not unravel the coalition. The compromise is premised on four central tenets: tightening border controls and punishing the employers of illegal immigrants; granting legal status to an estimated 12-million illegal immigrants already in the country; establishing a robust guest-worker program to give would-be illegal immigrants a legitimate route into the country; and shifting the emphasis of future legal migration away from family reunification and into favoring immigrants with work skills and education.

Senators also endorsed by voice vote an amendment by Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., to toughen the border controls that must be in place before many of the immigrant-rights measures go into force. The Department of Homeland Security would have to hire and train 20, 000 border patrol agents, not simply hire 18, 000 as the original deal required, as well as build more vehicle barriers and radar and camera towers than first proposed.

Senators also adopted a proposal by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to crack down with mandatory prison sentences on illegal immigrants who re-enter the United States.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

[Last modified May 24, 2007, 01:37:05]

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