Senators reach deal on immigration reform measure

Senators negotiating a broad immigration bill announced an agreement Thursday to create a 400,000-employee-a-year guestworker program and a system for issuing over 1 million permanent visas annually on the basis of job skills, education and family ties to legal residents.

The bill also would provide a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants who were in the United States before Jan. 1, 2007. The announcement came after a last-minute push when negotiators appeared to be backing away from concepts agreed to as late as Wednesday night. Among the last of the sticking points to be resolved was how points would be assigned to low-skilled workers.

Under the deal, future guestworkers would be allowed to enter the country on two-year visas and would have to return home for one year before seeking to enter the country again. Total stays would be limited to six years. Guestworkers would earn points toward a green card while working in the United States.

The guestworker program could not begin until the enforcement provisions under the bill were implemented. They include a doubling of the border patrol and the construction of the fence along the Mexican border. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has estimated that job will take 18 months.

The estimated 12 million illegal immigrants who arrived before Jan. 1 of last year could receive a "work authorization" immediately after enactment and subsequently be granted a "Z visa" putting them on a path to citizenship. But the heads of households would have to first pay a $5,000 fine and return home within eight years to become eligible to file a citizenship application.

The deal also carves out of the point system for all families that applied for green cards before May 2005 -- the "backlog" of applicants. All other applicants now awaiting green cards would have to reapply under the new point system. About 4 million families in the applicant backlog applied before the cutoff date, according to a memo describing the bill from the office of Senate Judiciary Immigration Subcommittee Chairman Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who brokered the deal.

Upon enactment, 1.1 million of the green cards issued under the new point system would be family-based, and 140,000 would be merit-based -- for a ratio of 89 percent to 11 percent. Over a period of eight years, the ratio would be reduced to 60 percent family-based (550,000) and 40 percent merit-based (380,000), according to the memo.

Agricultural workers would be included in the framework of the new system, but in a separate category with different standards. These workers would be issued a separate kind of visa and could apply for citizenship only after they had worked for a specified time in agriculture, according to Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho.

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