Bill would tighten border security, increase information sharing

Proposed legislation would also allow illegal immigrants to apply for work visas.

Immigration reform legislation introduced Thursday would boost border security and interior enforcement of immigration laws while at the same time reducing the flow of illegal immigrants by offering them visas to work in the United States, according to a bipartisan group of House and Senate sponsors.

To carry out the mandates, the Homeland Security, Labor, and State departments and the Social Security Administration would take on significant new responsibilities.

The bill, the 2005 Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act, would allow illegal immigrants who pay fines and fees of at least $2,000, take English and civics courses, and undergo medical and background checks, to apply for green cards and eventually citizenship.

The bill would establish a new type of work visa, the H-5A, which would allow low-skilled foreign workers who have lined up jobs in the United States to come for three years. The visa could be renewed once for an additional three years. Illegal workers now in the United States would apply for H-5B visas that would be valid for six years. After the visa terms expire, immigrants could either return home or apply for permanent residence, and ultimately, citizenship.

This "is not amnesty; this is earned adjustment," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who co-sponsored the bill along with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

McCain stressed that he and Kennedy had followed the principles for immigration reform previously laid out by President Bush, and that he expected the president would support the bill. The president's initial proposal, however, did not include the clear path to citizenship outlined by Kennedy and McCain, and the Sept. 11 attacks have since clouded the debate over increased immigration.

Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., plan to introduce competing legislation later this year that will be more attractive to immigration skeptics in the Republican Party. A Cornyn spokesman told the Associated Press last month that the Kennedy-McCain bill was a "work and stay" program. By contrast, Cornyn "prefers a work and return program, as does the president," the spokesman said.

Nonetheless, the Kennedy-McCain legislation is expected to have significant support among Democrats and business-minded Republicans. A range of interest groups immediately expressed support, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a business group; National Council of La Raza, which represents Hispanics; and the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigrant advocacy group.

The bill would require the Homeland Security Department to develop new approaches to tighten border control. The bill anticipates increased use of technology, and greater information sharing and cooperation among federal, state, and local authorities as well as the Mexican government. Local authorities would be paid for costs they incur for holding illegal immigrants, or prosecuting those charged with crimes. Foreign countries, such as Mexico, would have to enter into migration agreements with the United States aimed at helping control the flow of their citizens to this country.

The State and Homeland Security departments would work together processing the visas. Immigrants applying for the H-5A would have to demonstrate that they have a job waiting in the United States, and pay a $500 processing fee. The initial cap on H-5As would be 400,000, in line with the number of illegal immigrants thought to enter the United States each year.

DHS's Citizenship and Immigration Services division would fund civics and English language instruction, which would be required of visa holders seeking permanent residence.

The Labor Department would take on a new role, enforcing employer sanctions against the hiring of illegal workers. That is currently the province of the Homeland Security Department, which enforces employer sanctions rarely because of opposition from businesses and some in Congress. The Social Security Administration would develop a system that would allow U.S. employers to determine if foreign workers were eligible to work in the United States.

McCain stressed that the bill was not only about security and business, but also aimed at a humanitarian problem: Over 300 immigrants died trying to cross the Arizona desert last year. "It's long past time to put the underground economy above ground and recognize the reality of immigrants in our workforce," Kennedy said.