Any changes in U.S. immigration policy this year will depend on Arizona’s two senators who are taking on immigration reform as a major cause.
Republicans John McCain and Jon Kyl have the political clout as powerful lawmakers from the majority party in Washington. They have the credibility by representing a border state that has become a focal point of the national debate.
Right now, McCain and Kyl are working on separate reform proposals. McCain has linked up with Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., in a bipartisan effort. Kyl has allied with Sen. John Cornyn, RTexas, chairman of a key subcommittee on border security. The two held a news conference Thursday to discuss their proposal.
But for any reform blueprint to eventually reach the White House, most observers agree, the Arizona senators must find common ground.
"If Kyl and McCain can come together on a plan, this would be the best chance we’ve had for serious immigration reform in 15 years," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a Washington-based group that favors more liberal immigration laws.
Any immigration reform proposal will likely emerge from the Senate, where a large number of Republicans and Democrats share President Bush’s vision of a guestworker program to ease the pressure on overwhelmed border agents.
The House is more sharply divided; a group led by Reps. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., and Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., is pushing instead for strict border controls and business enforcement to reduce all immigration.
"I argue that the gulf isn’t as wide as often portrayed in the House," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. "But having said that, it’s much easier to have a Senate bill come through and go to the House."
McCain made the first move May 12 when he joined Kennedy to introduce legislation that would create 400,000 new visas a year for low-skilled foreign workers, and provide opportunities for an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants to remain in this country without fear of deportation.
Arizona’s senior senator is a media darling and potential 2008 presidential candidate, making him a player on almost any issue. He has a knack for building coalitions.
McCain also has a track record on crafting immigration policy: He was a leading sponsor of the last major reforms in 1986 that provided amnesty for millions and required for the first time that businesses check employee identification.
Meanwhile, Kyl has been working for months with Cornyn. Kyl heads the Senate Republican Policy Committee, which makes him part of GOP leadership. He also is one of Bush’s closest allies on Capitol Hill.
On Thursday at a Washington news conference, Kyl and Cornyn revealed a portion of their proposal. They want 10,000 more border agents and 1,000 immigration inspectors hired, and at least $500 million a year spent on surveillance technologies. They also want to increase the number of employer audits and to speed up deportations by reducing avenues for appeal.
Other parts of their plan to be released in June will include a different approach to guest-worker visas.
Kyl said he agrees there’s an opportunity this year for some action on reform.
Proponents for strict immigration control say the McCain-Kennedy bill is a new version of amnesty that would reward lawbreakers and encourage other foreign nationals to cross the border illegally.
Some immigrant rights advocates argue Kyl’s version would fail because most immigrants would remain in the shadows.
Other observers were frustrated Thursday because Kyl didn’t release the guestworker part of his plan.
"It’s destructive to the debate to lead with just enforcement," said Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum.
McCAIN’S BILL Plan: Establish guest-worker program with 400,000 new visas a year. Allow illegal immigrants already in U.S. to apply for temporary work visas, and for permanent residency after six years if they pay $2,000 in fines and any back taxes.
Increase employer sanctions for hiring illegal immigrants. Fund increased border enforcement and more random business audits from fines and fees tied to new visa applications. Allies: Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.; Reps. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz.
KYL’S BILL Plan: Improved enforcement by hiring 10,000 border agents, spend $500 million a year on surveillance technology, speed up deportations by reducing avenues for appeals, and mandate at least 200 business audits annually.
Allow illegal immigrants in U.S. to apply for temporary work visas with background checks; require those who want permanent residency to apply from home countries. Ally: Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas