WASHINGTON - Ending three months of closed-door deliberations, Senate negotiators unveiled a huge immigration bill Thursday that would enable more than 12 million illegal immigrants to step out from their shadow existence to live and work in the United States legally.
The bipartisan bill, which includes a temporary guest-worker program and an employee verification system that ultimately would affect all employers and U.S. workers, now heads toward an uncertain outcome in the Senate, which is scheduled to begin debate on the measure late Monday afternoon.
"I don't care how you to try to spin it, this is amnesty," said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., echoing the central opposition theme that began befalling the bill even before it was officially released.
But proponents, including DeMint's home-state colleague, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a member of the negotiating team, vigorously defended the multifaceted bill as the best - and perhaps last - shot Congress will have in protecting the nation's borders and addressing the widely dispersed population of illegal immigrants.
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"If, for some reason, this agreement falls apart, it will be a disaster for the country," Graham said.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., another negotiator, acknowledged that the bill had flaws, but she urged Americans and fellow lawmakers: "Please, please, please don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good."
The bill, which ultimately could end up at more than 1,000 pages when it reaches the Senate floor, is the result of negotiations between senators from both parties and two high-ranking emissaries from the Bush administration: Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez.
The two Cabinet secretaries' involvement underscored President Bush's commitment to push an immigration overhaul through Congress after the previous
Republican-led Congress rebuffed his initiatives.
"I really am anxious to sign a comprehensive immigration bill as soon as I possibly can," Bush said after a briefing by Chertoff and Gutierrez. "Today, we took a good step toward that direction."
The bill won early endorsements from pro-immigration groups, which have pressed for years for legalizing undocumented workers. But those on the opposite side of the debate - including conservative members of the president's Republican Party - said the bill is merely an updated version of a widely discredited 1986 law that granted amnesty to more than 2 million illegal immigrants.
"The Senate's proposal is nothing more than amnesty wearing make-up - it's easier to look at, but it's just as ugly underneath," said Rep. Patrick McHenry, R-N.C.
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, who participated in the negotiations but didn't attend the news conference announcing the deal, said he "expressed serious concerns" with the package, but suggested he would try to alter the measure through amendments on the floor.
"I simply cannot, and will not, support any legislation that repeats the mistakes of the 1986 amnesty," he said.
The measure differs substantially from an immigration bill that passed the Senate a year ago but later died in a stalemate with the House of Representatives. A cornerstone feature - and presumably the most contentious element - is its treatment of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants now in the country, the majority from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America.
Those who entered the United States before Jan. 1 would be eligible for a newly created "Z visa," which would enable them to live and work in the country after paying a $1,000 fine, passing criminal background checks and maintaining employment. They would be required to renew the visa every four years but could remain in the United States indefinitely as long as they continued to work and obeyed the law.
They eventually could apply for green cards to become permanent residents - the first step toward citizenship - but they would have to go to the back of line and wait for eight years while immigration officials clear a backlog of more than 5 million other green card applicants.
Those who wanted to get on the citizenship track also would have to leave the country to file their green card applications. They also would be required to pay an additional $4,000 fine and complete accelerated English requirements.