Senate group close to immigration deal

A core group of senators that has been meeting almost daily for the last several weeks is close to announcing the outlines of a comprehensive immigration bill that could be the basis for Senate debate in late May.

"I think we've made a ton of progress, and I think next week, we might even be able to talk about it more publicly," said Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., who is part of the group. "The problems are small and manageable."

"There isn't overall agreement," said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. "The discussions, I think, are being taken in good faith. ...It's a constructive dialogue."

Two components likely to be part of the agreement are a "trigger" mechanism that would delay implementation of a guestworker program until enforcement mechanisms are in place and a new "Z visa" program for undocumented workers in the United States, according to Martinez.

The negotiators have agreed to use the Z visa to give undocumented workers benefits not available for future guestworkers. "Once you have a Z visa, you can do something for the population here. Give them, not a certain or immediate path to citizenship, but a potential path to citizenship. And then the guestworkers you can deal with just as guestworkers," Martinez said.

The trigger provision might be enough to win support from Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., who voted against the Senate immigration bill last year. Isakson wants sophisticated surveillance at the border, bolstered border patrol and biometric ID cards for all foreign entrants into the country.

"If you have a meaningful security outline to trigger the reform, then that makes the reform work," Isakson said. "I've been very encouraged by the progress we've been making."

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez have been key players in the talks, which also include Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., Ken Salazar, D-Colo., Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., John Cornyn, R-Texas, Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and John McCain, R-Ariz.

Last year, when Isakson first floated his trigger idea on the floor, he said it would take two years to satisfy his enforcement criteria. Today, he said, that process would take only 18 months because the Homeland Security Department has beefed up enforcement.

Lawmakers in the negotiations say the administration's stepped-up involvement and its willingness to debate details have gone a long way in mollifying members with differing points of view. "Kennedy and McCain and myself and others have moved. And I think Kyl and Cornyn have also moved," Martinez said.

Menendez concurred. "We've all moved," he said.

If the members of the group can hold together, Republicans who last year did not support the Senate bill could sign on, including Kyl, Cornyn, Isakson, and Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga. That would fit with the administration's goal of attracting a substantial number of Senate Republicans to a comprehensive bill to give cover to House Republicans.

"The Senate is so far removed from reality," said NumbersUSA Government Relations Director Rosemary Jenks, whose group opposes any type of legal status for illegal immigrants. Jenks said she and other opponents have all but given up on the Senate, but they hope to stop a bill in the House that creates legalization opportunities for illegal workers.

House Judiciary Immigration Subcommittee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., who has been handed the task of shepherding an immigration bill through the House this year, is beginning the process with a series of hearings -- up to two a week -- on every aspect of the issue. "We'll know a lot more at the end," she said.

In the House, the plan is to pass an immigration bill in July. It could be the last bill members vote on before departing for the August recess.

In the Senate, lawmakers are considering moving an immigration proposal directly to the floor, bypassing the Judiciary Committee, which is mired in other issues. "And then it goes to the House, and then who knows," said Martinez.

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