WASHINGTON - The Bush administration and a bipartisan group of senators reached agreement yesterday on a sprawling overhaul of the nation's immigration laws that would bring an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants out of society's shadows while stiffening border protections and cracking down on employers of undocumented workers.
The delicate compromise, 380 pages long and three months in the making, represents the last, best chance for President Bush to win a major domestic accomplishment for his second term and could become the most significant change to the immigration system in 41 years.
Bush hailed the agreement as "one that will help enforce our borders, but equally importantly, it will treat people with respect."
But while immigration proponents and opponents lauded the work done to reach a deal, both sides - including Democratic leaders in the House and Senate - said they could torpedo the legislation in the end, after the Senate takes up the bill next week and the House turns to its version in July.
The Senate deal would grant temporary legal status to virtually all illegal immigrants in the country, while allowing them to apply for residence visas and eventual citizenship. A temporary-worker program would allow up to 400,000 migrants into the country each year, but they would have to leave after two years. And the current visa system, which stresses family ties for migrants, would be augmented by a complex point system that would favor skilled, educated workers.
Most changes would take effect only after the implementation of tough new border controls and a crackdown on the employment of undocumented workers.
"The question is, do you want to solve the problem, or do you want to complain about it?" said Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff. ". . . This is about solving it."
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D., Calif.), pleaded, "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good."
But the compromises that were needed to win the support of a liberal like Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D., Mass.) and a conservative illegal-immigration foe like Sen. Jon Kyl (R., Ariz.) made the bill extremely complex and opened it to attacks from all sides.
Democratic leaders were leery of three pivotal concessions to the conservatives. The first predicates access to long-term visas for illegal immigrants and the new guest-worker program on implementation of the border crackdown. Before those measures go into effect, the government must deploy 18,000 new border patrol agents and four unmanned aerial vehicles; build 200 miles of vehicle barriers, 370 miles of fencing, and 70 ground-based radar and camera towers; provide funds for detaining 27,500 illegal immigrants a day; and complete new identification tools to help employers route out illegal job applicants.
Skeptics say that would take years, but Chertoff insisted it could be done in 18 months.
Another sticking point came from replacing an immigration system primarily designed to reunify families with a point system that would give new emphasis to skills and education.
Automatic family-reunification visas would no longer apply to the adult siblings and adult children of U.S. citizens, and visas for parents would be capped. Instead, points would be granted for migrants with work experience in high-demand occupations who have worked for a U.S.-based firm. Additional points would be awarded based on education levels, English proficiency and family ties.
"We need to find a system that values and honors the work of all," said Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, one of the Democrats entrusted by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) to forge a House bill. "The landscaper is just as important as the computer scientist."
Finally, immigrants coming into the country under the temporary-worker program would have to leave after their permits expired, with no chance to appeal for permanent residence. Labor unions say such a system would depress wages and create an underclass.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), in a tepid response to the deal, voiced serious concerns about the temporary-worker provision and the family migration structure. Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, a key Democrat on the issue, refused to sign the deal he had helped to negotiate for months.
And Sen. Barack Obama (D, Ill.), a White House hopeful, warned that the proposal "could devalue the importance of family reunification, replace the current group of undocumented immigrants with a new undocumented population consisting of guest workers who will overstay their visas, and potentially drive down wages of American workers."
Conservatives were no less skeptical. The bill would grant any undocumented worker in the country before January a permit to remain in the country. They could then apply for a new, four-year "Z Visa," renewable indefinitely, as long as they pay thousands of dollars in fines and processing fees, show a clean work record, and pass a criminal background check.
Rep. Tom Tancredo (R., Colo.), a presidential candidate who strongly opposes illegal immigration, said the bill's authors "seem to think that they can dupe the American public into accepting a blanket amnesty if they just call it 'comprehensive' or 'earned legalization' or 'regularization.' "
White House officials viewed yesterday's agreement as a sign that the president can still have an impact on domestic policy despite the poisonous relations between the administration and Democrats over Iraq.
Current illegal immigrants