WASHINGTON -- Senators negotiating a bipartisan immigration reform bill have settled on the details of a plan that would immediately grant legal status to all illegal immigrants currently in the United States.
But as senators emerged from what they had hoped would be a final round of negotiations yesterday, they indicated that painstakingly slow progress would keep them from meeting the deadline set by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada to begin debate on a bill today.
Late yesterday, Reid agreed to push that deadline back to Monday.
"They tell me they're 80 percent of the way," Reid said in announcing the delay. "That's fine; the other 20 percent is hard."
The plan to award legal status to all illegal immigrants who meet certain qualifications would occur only after other so-called "triggers" are met. These triggers would require that certain border security and work-site enforcement measures be in place before other aspects of the overhaul go forward.
The Z visa plan would start with the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States going on a probationary legal status. If the triggers are met -- a process that Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina estimated would take 18 months -- then illegal immigrants who qualify could get Z visas. Those who have committed felonies would not be eligible, Graham said, and all participants would have to pass security checks, pay a fine and a processing fee and pass an English proficiency test.
Z visa holders would be able to apply for legal permanent resident status, a step toward citizenship. But at some point, the head of households with Z visas would have to return to his or her home country and then re-enter the United States. They would have to take their Z visa to the U.S. embassy or consulate and would be guaranteed re-entry. The Z visa would include a photo and fingerprints, Graham said.
Yesterday's talks followed two months of negotiations between key senators and administration officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez.
Reid had said that if the negotiators could not reach a compromise, he would start debate on a new version of the immigration bill that the Senate passed last year. Republicans say last year's bill is no longer acceptable and had signaled that they might block it. With the deadline extended to Monday, chances are better that the senators will be able to reach a deal.
Nicole Gaouette writes for the Los Angeles Times.