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US Lawmakers Continue Work on Immigration Reform


Several U.S. lawmakers are working behind the scenes to try to forge a compromise between very different plans for immigration reform passed by the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The House and Senate have passed widely differing proposals for overhauling the nation's immigration system.

The Senate bill - which President Bush supports - includes a guest worker program that would give many illegal immigrants in the United States the opportunity to pursue citizenship if they meet certain conditions. It also includes border security provisions.

The House bill, by contrast, emphasizes border security - and proposes building a fence along much of the U.S.-Mexican border. The House measure does not include a guest worker program.

Supporters of the Senate bill say any immigration reform bill must include a guest worker plan to address the 11 to 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States.

But those who back the House measure generally oppose a guest worker program, arguing it amounts to amnesty.

For weeks it looked as though compromise was impossible.

Now a Republican Congressman from Indiana, Mike Pence, is working on a proposal that includes border security measures of the House bill, but instead of offering a path to citizenship like the Senate bill, would require those in the United States illegally to apply for a work visa outside the United States. Private companies would issue work visas and conduct background checks of workers.

“If you return home and apply for the right to be in the United States of America, that does not involve amnesty because you are applying for the visa outside the United States of America,” said Mike Pence.

Congressman Pence was invited to the White House by President Bush to personally explain the idea.

“I call it a no-amnesty, guest-worker program,” he said. “The president listened intently. He told me he was intrigued with my proposal. He said he found it interesting.”

Senator Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, offered a similar proposal in the Senate - one that was ultimately rejected.

Isakson - who voted against the Senate bill with its guest worker proposal -- believes his idea has been gaining support among Senators and would pass if it came to another vote.

“Once there is an acceptance that we are going to secure the border first, then a lot of things can be negotiated,” said Johnny Isakson. “But in the absence of that, I do not think you will ever have comprehensive reform.”

Even some Senators who backed the Senate bill and guest worker provision are suggesting they would be willing to agree to a plan under which goals related to border security are met before a guest worker program can begin.

Senator John McCain of Arizona, who helped draft the Senate bill, says the measure would - in practice - put border security ahead of the guest worker plan because it would take much longer to establish a program dealing with guest workers.

That is essentially what White House spokesman Tony Snow says. He reiterated the President's support for immigration reform that includes a guest worker program, while noting Mr. Bush has deployed National Guard troops at the border with Mexico and citing progress in the training of border patrol guards.

“We already have the border security piece first, it's underway,” said Tony Snow. “The President wants to make sure that you have comprehensive reform, period.”

But compromise may still prove elusive, as there are some Republicans who say they will never agree to a guest worker program.

Senator John Cornyn is a Texas Republican:

“Frankly, I am pretty firm in my opinion right now that the pathway to citizenship for somebody who came here illegally is not negotiable,” he said.

Still, House Majority Leader John Boehner remains hopeful.

“Anything is possible,” said John Boehner. “We are going to work with our Senate counterparts to produce a strong bill.”

House Republican leaders have announced they will hold hearings on immigration reform next week in San Diego, California and Laredo, Texas. Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, Senator Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, plans to hold his own hearings beginning July 5 in his home state.