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Immigration bill has something for everyone to oppose
San Francisco Chronicle


May 22, 2007

WASHINGTON -- The powerful interest groups whose backing is critical to an overhaul of U.S. immigration policy are fracturing over the new bipartisan "grand bargain" in the Senate, setting up a brawl over changes that could tear the fragile deal apart.

Many business groups and ethnic lobbies for years have provided the political muscle behind the move to legalize the estimated 12 million people now living in the country illegally, create a giant new temporary worker program for future workers and expand the H1b visas for skilled immigrants eagerly sought in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. But they are deeply unhappy with the compromise among conservative Republican Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, liberal Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and President Bush.

Add to that the withering fire from conservatives, a tepid welcome from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid's faint praise of the bill as a "starting point," and what has been billed as a "grand bargain" on immigration appears to be unraveling before the debate even begins.

If the bill fails, all sides agree it could be years -- 2009 at the earliest, after next year's presidential election -- before another effort would be made to toughen the border and find some resolution to the problem of the 12 million people living in the country illegally.

The deal's defenders concede that the pact does not please everyone, but they warn both sides against leaving the problem to fester.

Kyl said his Arizona constituents wonder why he would sit down with Kennedy, a longtime liberal on immigration. Kyl said doing nothing was not an option and that if he hadn't worked with Kennedy, his conservative ideas would not have made it into the bill.

Kennedy's hopes that the Senate would vote on the proposal by the end of this week to avoid more criticism over the Memorial Day holiday were quashed by Senate leaders. Although the Senate voted overwhelmingly, 69-23, to proceed to debate, senators in both parties are eager to amend the enormous legislation, which still in draft form is nearly 400 pages long. Most senators saw it for the first time last week after more than two months of closed-door, bipartisan negotiations.

The compromise attempts to reconcile profoundly conflicting positions on immigration, which accounts for the fire it is taking from left and right.

Conservatives want more border control and are alarmed at the enormous numbers of immigrants now arriving on U.S. shores both legally, about 1.3 million, and illegally, estimated at 400,000 a year. Liberals and business and ethnic immigrant groups want legalization for those already here and a path to permanent residency for future workers.

Yet businesses that have been pushing hard for expanding legal immigration are deeply divided and unhappy even over a new merit-based point system intended to raise the skill level of immigrants.

California farmers who have sent delegation after delegation to Washington complaining of fruits and vegetables rotting in the fields are among the few who are happy. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., insisted that the deal include a new visa program for 1.5 million farmworkers, known as AgJobs, that has been stalled in Congress for several years.

But Silicon Valley's high-tech community is furious at the bill's H1b provisions for skilled workers, even though they appear to expand the number of temporary visas from the current 85,000 to as many as 180,000 eventually.

That's because the bill includes some severe restrictions urged by H1b opponents, Sens. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, that would crack down on outsourcing companies in India using the visas for their U.S. operations and would add extensive compliance measures that H1b advocates call unworkable.

Low-wage service industries don't like the temporary-worker program because workers would have to go home for a year after every two-year stint and could stay only a total of six years.

Pro-immigration groups and many Democrats also oppose such a plan, warning that it would create a "permanent revolving underclass" of low-wage workers with no incentive to assimilate and lead to a new illegal immigration problem if people do not return home. They want a path to permanent residence for temporary workers, but Kyl has been adamant for months that "temporary means temporary."

Business also is unhappy with the new point system designed to increase the overall skill and education level of new legal immigrants. Employers prefer to select the individuals they hire rather than draw from a generic pool of workers.

Leading immigrant groups oppose the point system because it would reduce extended family migration.


E-mail Carolyn Lochhead at clochhead(at)
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