Leading U.S. senators reached an agreement on Thursday on immigration reform that would strengthen U.S. borders and grant lawful status to millions of illegal immigrants, a deal that could lead to a major legislative victory for President George W. Bush.
This sets the stage for what is expected to be a passionate Senate debate over the plan, which would give some 12 million illegal immigrants legal status, create a temporary worker program and set up a merit-based system for future newcomers.
"The agreement we've just reached is the best possible chance we will have in years to secure our borders, bring millions of people out of the shadows and into the sunshine of America," said Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat who helped lead the bipartisan talks.
Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican said: "No matter what we craft it's going to be attacked from both the right and the left."
"This is the best I think that can be done," he added.
Immigration is a hot-button issue that has divided the United States in a way that has made it difficult to pass reforms. Hundreds of thousands of Latinos and other immigrants rallied as recently as May 1 to demand change.
Many Republicans oppose amnesty and blocked consideration of immigration legislation last year in the U.S. House of Representatives, saying it rewarded those who broke U.S. laws.
Republican Reps. Lamar Smith of Texas and Peter King of New York condemned the Senate compromise, issuing a statement saying it "treats illegal immigrants better than those who play by the rules and come in the right way."
The Senate compromise would put illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship after a probationary period and make them pay stiffer fines than proposed in last year's bill.
The agreement was reached after marathon talks. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, set aside next week for Senate debate. The House is expected to take up its version of immigration reform later this year.
DEMOCRATIC RESERVATIONS, BUSH SUPPORT
One Democratic negotiator said he could not support the compromise, citing the temporary worker program and fees to be paid in the legalization process.
"I for one cannot settle for something that isn't responsible, or something that creates a bigger problem than already exists," New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez said. "It doesn't have to be perfect, but it does have to be fair, humane, and practical."
Bush embraced the Senate breakthrough. "I really am anxious to sign a comprehensive immigration bill as soon as we possibly can. Today we took a good step in that direction," he said.
Under the legislation, a new visa would be created for illegals who can prove they arrived in the United States before January 1, 2007. They would receive a probationary visa during background checks. That would convert to a renewable four-year "Z" visa allowing employment in the United States and eventual eligibility for a permanent residency, or green card.
The measure would create a temporary worker program that would allow workers from Mexico and other countries to work for two years, if they went home before they returned. At least 400,000 visas a year could be issued.
Temporary workers would be allowed three two-year work periods, but their time in the United States would help earn points toward permanent status.
Mexico called the deal "positive" and "an important step toward the passing of a complete migration accord this year."
"The Mexican government hopes that the different players involved in the process of debating and eventually approving this initiative will take advantage of this opportunity," foreign ministry spokesman Victor Aviles said in a statement.
The legislation also includes tough border security and workplace enforcement measures that would have to take effect before the temporary worker program goes forward.
The proposal would limit immigration for "family reunification" to close relatives and establish a merit-based system with points for skills, education, English and family ties. Kennedy said the merit system would include low-skilled workers as well as highly skilled ones.
Some immigrant groups called the compromise a first step.
"The package is generous for those who are already here and those who have waited patiently to come legally," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the pro-immigrant National Immigration Forum.
"How the deal treats immigrant families and workers coming in the future is where the biggest problem lies," he said.
(Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan in Washington, Tim Gaynor in Phoenix and Catherine Bremer in Mexico City)