If you listened to last year's campaign ads, you would have hardly expected Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl to team up with Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy to craft an immigration-reform package that includes a path to citizenship for immigrants who have entered the country illegally.
But Kyl, responding to pressure from a White House eager to resolve border-security issues, has signed on to a compromise bill that also includes steep fines for both illegal immigrants and the employers who hire them, increased border security and a new guest-worker program.
The Border Security and Immigration Reform Act of 2007 will be at the top of the agenda when the U.S. Senate gets back to work next week after the Memorial Day break, with Kyl a key player in shepherding the so-called "grand bargain" through the legislative grinder.
Kyl, who argued against any path to citizenship during his re-election campaign last year, says the bill doesn't entirely represent his values, but argues that it would have been worse without his input.
The package is coming under fire from nearly every direction. Conservatives from the Minutemen wing of the Republican Party say it amounts to amnesty for the 12 million illegal immigrants believed to be in the United States. GOP state lawmaker Russell Pearce, renowned for sponsoring legislation cracking down on illegal immigrants, told the press that the package was "treasonous."
On the other end of the political spectrum, liberals say it's too hard on illegal immigrants. Democratic Congressman Raúl Grijalva worries that it will tear families apart and create "a rotating permanent underclass."
Labor unions, which want a cutback in the number of guest workers allowed into the United States under the plan, complain that too many foreign workers will depress wages.
And it appears the public isn't very excited about what they've heard so far. A nationwide Rasmussen Reports poll conducted last week shows that just 26 percent of voters support the Senate plan, while 48 percent were opposed, and 26 percent were unsure.
But even some detractors, such as Grijalva, say the plan is a start, although he adds that he couldn't support it in the House unless changes were made.
His Southern Arizona counterpart, Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, is more enthusiastic about the plan, calling it "an excellent first step. It's not perfect, but it's a starting point."
The business community, which wants to escape the threat of workplace raids while maintaining a steady supply of labor, is also providing political cover to Kyl and his proposal. Glenn Hamer, head of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, says "the compromise contains the framework that we need to have a very successful, thoughtful, comprehensive reform plan."
The biggest sticking point is the question of what happens to the estimated 12 million people who have illegally crossed the borders or overstayed their visas, with Pearce and his crowd arguing that a plan that allows them to legally remain in the country under any condition amounts to amnesty.
So what would happen to you under the Kennedy-Kyl plan if you were in the country illegally?
First, you'd report to immigration authorities and pay $5,000 in fees and fines. If you have family members, they'd also face fines, albeit smaller ones.
As long as you can show that you were in the United States before Jan. 1, 2007, and you're holding a job, the government has 24 hours to run a background check to ensure that your record is clean enough to allow you to remain in the country. Then you would get a provisional green card so you could legally seek work and travel between the United States and other countries. It would also put you in line for the new "Z visa."
But before any of these Z visas could be issued, the federal government would have to step up border security, including hiring 18,000 new Border Patrol agents and building 371 miles of fencing. (More on border security later.)
The government would also need to hire enough staff to handle an onslaught of applications and demonstrate that it could hand out a "tamper-resistant" ID card. Once all that's in place, you would trade in your provisional green card for a four-year Z visa, which would be renewable.
If you want legal permanent residence in the United States, you'd have to return to your home country, go to the end of the visa line, file the proper paperwork and pay another $4,000 in fees and fines.
Critics of the plan dismiss this process as amnesty, partly because they fear that once the provisional green cards are handed out, the next steps won't be taken. Even before the proposal was released, Arizona politicians such as Don Goldwater, who unsuccessfully tried to ride the wave of border-security frustration in last year's GOP gubernatorial primary, were firing off e-mails complaining about the deal.
And after it was unveiled, Arizona Republican Party chairman Randy Pullen joined the chorus of critics, saying the bill was "an overcomplicated answer to problems it'll never adequately address."
But Hamer, who was executive director of the Arizona Republican Party before taking the job heading up the state chamber of commerce last year, says amnesty is defined as a pardon without penalty.
"The Senate bill, as we see it, is not amnesty," he says. "There's significant penalty, including a $5,000 fine, for those who have entered the country unlawfully."
Hamer says critics need to offer a feasible alternative.
"What exactly is their plan for the 12 million people who are here unlawfully?" he asked. "No responsible person would suggest that all of those individuals should be deported. ... That will never happen in the United States of America. It's a fringe idea."
At the other side of the political spectrum, Grijalva complains that the plan's fines and fees are "excessive," particularly for people who have been earning low wages.
"We're talking about a good chunk of change here--up to $15,000 over the course of time," Grijalva says. "I think that's going to make it prohibitive."
Giffords, who said she supported a secure border during her congressional campaign last year, says a $5,000 fine sounds tough but fair.
"I think it'll be hard, but I think they'll find the money," Giffords says. "When you look to see how much people are paying to smuggle their loved ones into the country, it goes into the thousands as well. The reality is, these people broke the law, and they entered the country illegally. If we don't stiffen the penalty and increase the fines and the fees, then people will continue to come and think that they're going to get a free ride, like they did in '86. And we can't continue to do that."
Besides the legalization process for illegal immigrants now in the country, the Kennedy-Kyl plan includes a new guest-worker program that would also kick in once the aforementioned security benchmarks are met so that workers would have a legal avenue to enter the country.
The proposal called for a starting cap of 400,000 temporary workers, who would have to show that they have been matched with an employer who had been unable to fill the job with a U.S. worker. The cap would be adjusted to fit market demands.
Temporary workers would be split into two categories under the guest-worker program. There are nonseasonal workers, whose Y-1 visas would allow them into the country for as long as two years. Those workers, who would most likely be in high-tech or similar fields, would be able to renew their visas twice, as long as they spend at least one year out of the country between stints. But if they brought spouses or children--which would only be allowed if they have medical insurance and show their wages are 150 percent of the federal poverty level--the workers' visas would not be eligible for renewal.
Then there are seasonal workers who would be covered under Y-2 visas, which would allow them to stay in the U.S. for 10 months. These workers would have a harder time bringing in family members, which raises concerns for Grijalva.
Labor unions, unhappy with the new guest-worker program, are already pushing to amend the legislation to cut the number of Y visas from 400,000 to 200,000 annually.
The guest-worker program won't work until employers can review the legal status of workers. Within 18 months of the bill's passage, provided a reliable verification system has been set up, every U.S. employer would be required to check the legal status of all new hires. Once the system is operational, employers would have three years to verify that every employee was in the country legally--or face new and higher fines.
But before the federal government could start handing out those Z and Y visas, it would have to beef up border security.
The legislation, as previously mentioned, calls for hiring 18,000 Border Patrol agents and building 371 miles of new fencing. It also calls for 200 miles of vehicle barriers, 70 ground-based radar and camera towers along the U.S.-Mexico border, and enough jails to house up to 27,500 illegal immigrants.
The plan's backers hope all that--along with the new verification system--could be accomplished within 18 months. For example, Kyl told radio talk-show host Hugh Hewitt that lawmakers settled on the 371 miles of fencing because that's the length that Department of Homeland Security officials estimated they could build in a year and a half. (Kyl added that more fencing would be built after the trigger was reached.)
The 18-month estimate sounds optimistic, given the current slow pace of shoring up border security, even after you consider that the 18,000 Border Patrol agents that are supposed to be hired include the 12,000 that Congress has already approved.
Controlling the border is one thing that voters across the political spectrum agree needs to be done. The aforementioned Rasmussen Reports poll showed that 72 percent of voters surveyed nationwide said it's "very important" to secure the border, with another 16 percent saying it was somewhat important.
The polling firm notes that the public isn't clamoring for comprehensive reform, with only 29 percent of voters saying it's "very important" for "the government to legalize the status of illegal aliens already in the United States."
But nearly two-thirds of those surveyed--65 percent--say they'd support a compromise that included a "very long path to citizenship," as long as the proposal required illegal immigrants to pay fines and learn English, and included strict fines for businesses that hired illegal immigrants.
What's the price tag for the entire package? The Congressional Budget Office is still crunching the numbers, but the cost is expected to run into the tens of billions of dollars. Last year, the Congressional Research Service estimated a 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexico border could cost $49 billion.
Robin Hoover, a pastor at First Christian Church who has spearheaded the Humane Borders outfit that fills water tanks in remote areas of the Arizona desert, agrees that the United States needs a secure border. But he says the Senate plan is a "bass-ackwards" approach, because it beefs up security first--and once a guest-worker program is in place, there will be little incentive to illegally cross the border. That means the Border Patrol will no longer be distracted by people entering the country seeking work and can concentrate on capturing bad actors.
Hoover says the proposed security measures are "a police power grab as far as I'm concerned. I get real Cato Institute/libertarian on some of this shit. I've got a civil-liberties streak a mile wide."
Hoover warns that if the military buildup continues without a guest-worker program, more people are going to die crossing the desert.
"Increased militarization of the border leads to more migrant deaths," he says.
Giffords, who supports a mixture of fencing in urban areas, and vehicle barriers and high-tech surveillance in other areas, argues that the security requirements are necessary, because leaving the border unsecured is no longer an option. While noting that the Sept. 11 hijackers entered the country legally, she says the next band of terrorists may not.
"We are not fighting a country or a nation state," Giffords says. "We are fighting shadowy figures that belong to these loose underground networks, and they want to do us harm. With a porous border, they can do that."
If there's going to be comprehensive reform, Giffords says it has to happen this summer, or presidential politics will delay it until after the 2008 election.
"If we don't do something by August, then nothing will happen for the next year and a half, and I think that's intolerable," Giffords says.
But Grijalva says no deal is better than a bad deal.
"A deal at any cost to relieve ourselves of the political division that's going on in this country is obviously a mistake."