Tough road ahead for immigration reform

There is perhaps no issue on Capitol Hill that carries more “emotion, fear, guilt and racism” than immigration.

So said former Sen. Alan Simpson in 1986 when he co-shepherded through Congress historic reforms designed to staunch the flow of illegal immigrants into America.

That effort, which he crafted with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., failed to even thin the ranks of undocumented workers, who now number an estimated 12 million.

On Monday, senators _ including Kennedy _ began to tackle the divisive issue again, as President Bush used the occasion of a naturalization ceremony in Washington to call for a “civil and dignified” debate in Congress.

After a weekend of unprecedented protests against a congressional immigration crackdown that drew thousands to the streets around the country, hundreds more took the same message Monday to Capitol Hill. In California and Texas, thousands of mainly Latino students walked out of school in protest.

As the din grew Monday, so did uncertainty about what, if anything, will emerge from Congress in this election year. About all that is known is that “immigration is a tough, gut-hard issue,” Simpson, a former GOP senator from Wyoming, said at an immigration forum this month.

With other proposals and compromises expected to crop up as the Senate debate progresses _ and as whatever emerges from the Senate is ultimately reconciled with the tough measure earlier crafted by the House _ here’s a look at the main immigration fixes now on the table:

— Bush administration plan:

End the “catch and release” of thousands of illegal border crossers who, because of a shortage of detention facilities, are now let go if they promise to appear later in court. Wants to increase the number of holding facilities by 40 percent.

Double the resources for enforcing current laws that mandate employers to hire only legal workers.

Create a program for “temporary workers,” who would be permitted to work in the United States for no more than six years. These workers would not be granted amnesty but would be able to apply for a “green card” while a guest worker.

— The “Secure and Orderly Immigration Act” proposed by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Kennedy:

Provide three-year work visas to illegal immigrants for a $1,000 fee, and allow the visas to be renewed once. After six years of such legal employment, the immigrants would be allowed to pay another $1,000 and apply for green cards.

Add biometric data to all visa and other documents to prevent fraud.

Doubles penalties against employers who hire illegal workers, and mandates businesses to use an electronic system to verify employees are permitted to work.

— “The Comprehensive Enforcement and Immigration Reform Act” sponsored by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.:

Allow illegal immigrants to work in the United States for two years, and then return home for one year. After that, they could apply to return as temporary or permanent workers.

Create a guest worker program that would allow two years of work but no chance at U.S. citizenship.

Establish secure, tamper-resistent Social Security cards, add 6,000 new fraud investigators, 10,000 Border Patrol agents, and 10,000 worksite investigators.

— Compromise proposal by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, that was slated Monday to toil over the issue late into the night:

Make it a crime to be in the United States illegally. Allow guest workers to be sponsored by employers for a maximum of six years, but without a route to permanent legal status.

Give immigrants who arrived before Jan. 4, 2004 the chance to obtain green cards _ but not by “cutting in line” ahead of would-be immigrants who applied legally.

Provide more training for border officers in identifying fake documents, and increasing the penalty for such fraud. Increase investigators by 12,000, add 50 more immigration judges, and boost the number of beds in detention facilities by 40,000 by 2010.

(Contact Lisa Hoffman at HoffmanL(at)