House Immigration Bill Offers Citizenship

Nicole Gaouette and Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times, March 21, 2007

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Reps. Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) will unveil broad legislation that would also create a new worker program, stiffen worker verification procedures and overhaul the visa system to reduce waiting times for legal immigrants.

In recognition of the tensions that surround the controversial issue, the bill also contains provisions designed to appeal to conservatives who want stronger border enforcement and oppose citizenship provisions that grant amnesty to people in the country illegally.

One measure would ensure that tough border security and work-site enforcement standards are met before other changes can go forward. Another would require illegal immigrants eligible for citizenship under the bill to leave the country and return legally.

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As part of the pitch for conservative support, Gutierrez pointed to the provision requiring illegal immigrants to leave the country.

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Illegal immigrants would be eligible for legalization if they arrived in the U.S. before June 1, 2006. They would have to pay a $2,000 fine and back taxes, and pass background and security checks. If after six years they have learned English and civics, kept a clean record, and the head of household has left and reentered the U.S. legally, they could become legal permanent residents, a step toward citizenship.

Unlike a Senate bill passed last year, those leaving the U.S. would not have to go to their home countries, but could travel to Canada or Mexico. Exceptions to the requirement would be made for children, the elderly, single heads of households, business owners and those in military service.

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Gutierrez said the bill’s border security provisions focused more on “smart technology, not fences.” They call for more border patrol agents and better coordination with Latin American countries.

The bill would increase penalties for crimes committed by immigrants, including human smuggling, gang activity, and visa and document fraud. Unlike the enforcement-only bill passed by the House last year, the Flake-Gutierrez legislation would allow immigrants some access to courts.

The legislation would mandate a new biometric system that employers would use to verify that workers have legal status. Gutierrez said the administration had pledged to have a system in place by the end of 2008.

The bill incorporates the “Dream Act,” which would allow illegal immigrants to pay in-state rates for college tuition and give those brought to the United States as youngsters a way to gain citizenship.

Flake and Gutierrez have folded in the AgJobs bill, which would create a dedicated-worker program for the agricultural industry.

They have also crafted a more general program that would admit up to 400,000 low-skilled workers a year for jobs that employers were unable to fill with Americans. The Department of Homeland Security would have to certify that it could accurately verify those workers’ documents before the program could begin.

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