With ‘an agreement in principle,’ House lawmakers will begin drafting legislation to be introduced in early June. But hurdles remain.
By James Rowley and Roxana Tiron
May 17 (Bloomberg) -- A bipartisan group of U.S. House members has reached a tentative agreement on a comprehensive revision of the U.S. immigration system, according to three lawmakers, as a Senate committee proceeds with its own plan.
"We have an agreement in principle," Texas Republican John Carter said as House members left a negotiating session yesterday in Washington, while withholding details. Lawmakers will begin drafting legislation to be introduced in early June.
The House measure will differ "in a lot of areas" from the Senate’s proposal, Florida Republican Representative Mario Diaz-Balart told reporters. He said the deal was the first step in "a very difficult process." Kentucky Democrat John Yarmuth also told reporters there was a tentative agreement.
The House proposal, like the Senate’s, offers a path to citizenship for many of 11 million undocumented immigrants already living in the U.S., according to a House aide not authorized to discuss the deal publicly. While none would be barred from seeking that path, they would have to wait 10 years to become legal residents, making them eligible for citizenship after another five years. The bipartisan proposal in the Senate envisions a path to citizenship taking at least 13 years.
Resolution of this issue poses the potential key to an agreement between the Democratic-controlled Senate and Republican-run House on President Barack Obama’s push for the most significant revision of U.S. immigration policy in a generation.
Representative Xavier Becerra, a California Democrat, said in a May 8 interview that his party would insist on ultimate citizenship eligibility for the undocumented. "I don’t think anyone wants to go back to when you have second-class status, where you have a permanent underclass," he said.
The Senate Judiciary Committee will continue working on amendments to its bipartisan immigration legislation next week. Word of an agreement among the House negotiators could lend momentum to the effort. Getting an immigration measure through Congress long been considered most difficult to achieve in the Republican-run House.
At an April 29 immigration forum in San Antonio, Texas, Carter said he was crafting a provision requiring people who entered the U.S. illegally to complete a procedure to meet demands that undocumented immigrants not receive "amnesty."
The last congressional bid to pass comprehensive immigration legislation stalled in 2007. Republicans are trying to reconnect with Hispanics after Obama won 71 percent of the constituency’s votes in his re-election in November.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said yesterday he plans to bring his chamber’s immigration legislation, S.744, to the floor "as soon as it’s ready."
"I will do everything in my power to have this bill become law, and I am confident that the time is right," Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said of the immigration measure. So far, the bill has survived proposed changes in the Judiciary Committee that might doom it on the Senate floor.
The House group met yesterday to try to resolve what Carter called the last remaining issue: how Obama’s health-care law would cover undocumented immigrants. Absent such an agreement, Carter said the group was prepared to move forward with bipartisan legislation covering almost all of the issues they have been discussing for more than three years.
"Ninety-five percent of this bill" will be "totally bipartisan," Carter told reporters. A day earlier, another member of the House group, Idaho Republican Raul Labrador, said the talks had reached an impasse.
The House negotiators also include Republican Sam Johnson of Texas and Democrats Zoe Lofgren and Becerra of California and Luis Gutierrez of Illinois.
Their negotiations won’t necessarily shape the House leadership’s plans. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican, has said he will proceed with separate bills instead of a comprehensive immigration measure.
Also yesterday, Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah said he remains hopeful an agreement can be reached with Democrats on changes sought by technology companies to the H-1B visa program for high-skilled foreign workers.
"It’s extremely important not just to me but to the whole high-tech world," Hatch said on the Judiciary Committee’s third day of work on changes to the Senate bill. His support could be crucial in passing a bill on the chamber’s floor.
One of Hatch’s amendments would allow individuals who intend to immigrate to the U.S. to be counted as U.S. workers under certain circumstances. Another would require employers to show a U.S. worker wasn’t available only when a foreign employee is initially hired, not with each visa extension.
Democratic authors of the Senate’s immigration measure, including Charles Schumer of New York and Richard Durbin of Illinois, have said the bill’s provisions on high-skilled worker visas are intended to be a middle ground between technology companies, which want more access to foreign workers, and labor groups, which are concerned about the effects on U.S. workers.
The bipartisan Senate measure would raise the annual visa limit to 135,000 from 85,000 and allow further expansion to 180,000, depending upon economic conditions.
An amendment offered by Hatch would set a baseline of 115,000 H-1B visas and allow the number to rise incrementally to 180,000 if there is demand from companies.