Immigration issue returns to debate in Senate

WASHINGTON - An on-again, off-again immigration bill embraced by President Bush is back on - at least for a while - as Senate leaders prepare to resume debate on the volatile measure, possibly beginning as early as Friday. Here's a refresher course.

QUESTION: What's the outlook for the Senate bill?

ANSWER: The Senate could begin debate as early as Friday, possibly working through the weekend, with a final vote expected next week after senators consider at least 20 amendments, almost evenly divided among Democrats and Republicans. The outlook for passage remains uncertain, although Bush and the White House are mounting an intensive lobbying effort behind the bill, which the president considers his top domestic priority.

Q: Let's start with the basics. Why is immigration such a hot issue?

A: The robust U.S. economy has lured millions of immigrants - largely from Mexico and other Latin American countries - in numbers that vastly eclipse the number of visas available. Many businesses are dependent on the flow of illegal labor to fill chronic shortages, while many grass-roots Americans are resentful, saying illegal immigrants pose a multibillion-dollar drain on social services and take jobs that should go to Americans. Many pro-­immigrant groups believe undocumented workers and their families are exploited by unscrupulous employers and forced to live in the shadows without adequate legal safeguards.

Q: How many illegal immigrants are in the United States?

A: No one knows for sure. The most commonly accepted estimate is that of the Pew Hispanic Center, which placed the number at 11.5 million to 12 million as of March 2006. Some projections place it closer to 20 million.

Q: Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act in 1986 to stop illegal immigration. Why did it fail?

A: The law granted amnesty to 2.7 million immigrants and sought to stop further illegal immigration by imposing fines and penalties on employers who continued to hire undocumented immigrants. The law also required employees to submit documents to prove eligibility.

But the sanctions weren't vigorously enforced, documents were easily forged and readily available U.S. jobs continued to draw illegal immigrants.

Q: What are the principal components of the bill pending in the Senate?

A: The most controversial provision would allow illegal immigrants who entered the country before Jan. 1 to apply for Z visas, renewable every four years, which would enable them to live and work in the United States. They would pay an initial $1,000 fine, plus renewal fees, and would have to pass criminal background checks and stay employed. Z visa holders would be required to be proficient in English by the time they sought their second renewal, about 9 1/2 years after the law went into effect.

Q: Would they become U.S. citizens?

A: Not necessarily. They could remain Z visa holders indefinitely. But if they chose, they eventually could apply to become legal permanent residents, the first step to citizenship. They would have to wait for at least eight years while the government clears a backlog of current green-card applicants and then would have to leave the country to apply. They also would be required to pay an additional $4,000.

Q: I've also heard a great deal about a guest worker program. Could you explain it?

A: Foreign workers could apply for Y visas to work in the United States in two-year increments for up to a total of six years. The two-year visa could be renewed twice, but the worker would have to stay outside the United States for a year between each extension.

The program has ignited a classic labor-management conflict, with businesses saying the temporary workers are essential to filling low-skilled jobs, while many labor organizations contend it would drive U.S. workers out of jobs and depress wages.

Q: When would the legalization and guest-worker programs take effect?

A: Not until the implementation of measures to toughen border security and workplace enforcement, expected to take at least 18 months after the bill's enactment. Known as "triggers," the measures include increasing the size of the Border Patrol to 18,000 agents (now about 13,000) and erecting 370 miles of fencing, 500 miles of vehicle barriers, 70 ground-based radar and camera towers and four unmanned aerial vehicles.

Q: What are the sanctions against employers of illegal immigrants?

A: A $5,000 civil fine per immigrant for a first offense. Second offense: $10,000 per immigrant. Third offense: $25,000 per immigrant; subsequent offenses, $75,000. Additionally, an employer who engages in a pattern and practice of illegal hiring would face criminal penalties of $75,000 for each unauthorized immigrant and six months in jail.

Immigrants who entered the country illegally would face a criminal misdemeanor fine and six months in jail for the first offense. A second offense would be a felony, with a fine and maximum two years in prison.

Q: Let's back up for a minute. Explain the current system of legal immigration.

A: An estimated 1.2 million people annually get green cards to enter the United States as legal permanent residents. Nearly two-thirds are through family-based petitions sponsored by relatives already in the United States. The next biggest group comes into the country for jobs, while lesser numbers are refugees or asylum seekers.

Additionally, foreigners who maintain a permanent residence outside the United States enter the country on dozens of temporary, "non-immigrant" visa programs for tourism, medical treatment, business, temporary work or study. An estimated 40 percent of illegal immigrants are those who overstay their visas.

Q: Would the legal immigration system change under the Senate bill?

A: Substantially. The bill would create a point-based merit system accounting for about a third of all future immigration. The merit system would be designed to attract highly education professionals to work in science, technology and health, as well as skilled workers needed for high-demand jobs ranging from carpenters and truck drivers to teaching assistants.