By Arun Kumar
Washington : US senators and the White House have hammered out a bipartisan plan that would provide about 12 million illegal immigrants, including some 300,000 Indians, a path to citizenship.
President George W. Bush, who has made immigration reform as one of his top priorities since Democrats won control of Congress, signalled his support for the plan that would rewrite the entire legal immigration system to favour those with key work skills.
The legislation would allow the illegal immigrants now in the country to stay and work, but they would have to wait up to eight years to apply for green cards. They would have to return home before being eligible, and pay a fine of $5,000.
A new temporary worker programme would allow new immigrants to come and work for up to six years, but they would have to return home every two years.
"Our immigration system is badly in need of reform," Bush said urging passage of the immigration bill. "This proposal delivers an immigration system that is secure, productive, orderly and fair."
"The plan would bring undocumented workers already in this country out of the shadows without amnesty and without animosity.
"It would require workers to pay a meaningful penalty, learn English, pay their taxes, and pass a background check before they can be considered for legalised status. If they achieve this legalised status and decide they want to apply for a green card, they must return home to file an application in order to get in line behind all of those who have played by the rules and followed the law."
Illegal immigrants would come forward and receive probationary status while the government continues to build fencing and vehicle barriers on the border and institutes better checks to make sure employers are hiring legal workers.
Once the security improvements are finished, the probationary immigrants could apply for a visa putting them on the path to citizenship, though they would have to return home before collecting a green card, the intermediary step to citizenship.
The plan would create a temporary worker system for future foreign workers and revamp the immigration system to institute a points system — intended to end so-called "chain migration" of family members of new arrivals — that would reward those with needed skills, education and English proficiency.
A Democratic aide said that under the deal more than 50 percent of green cards still would go to spouses and non-adult children of immigrants. Only about 30 percent of the new green cards would be subject to a new merit-based system.
The deal didn't thrill either side, but both sides said it is the only chance for a bill to pass.
The deal was announced at a press conference attended by seven Republicans, three Democrats and two Cabinet secretaries, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez.
"This plan isn't perfect but it is a strong agreement and a good solution," said Senator Edward Kennedy noting that it takes into account family ties, refugees who need asylum, and the demand for different types of jobs, both low and high skilled.
Many details of the plan still need to be worked out; legislation has to be written and passed by both houses of Congress, and eventually signed by the president.
Acknowledging the concerns of some in his own party regarding the country's capacity to assimilate large numbers of Spanish-speaking immigrants, Bush reaffirmed the image of the US as a "melting pot."
Both political parties have internal divisions on immigration reform policy. Currently, the US Senate is controlled by the Democrats by one vote.
In the Senate, a simple majority – 51 votes or more – is needed to pass legislation. But opponents can block consideration by prolonging debate unless at least 60 votes are obtained to limit debate and bring the legislation to a vote.
In the House, Democrats have a majority, but Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she will not bring the issue to a vote unless at least 70 Republicans signal their support for the bill.