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Senate Delays Vote on Immigration Bill

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

We will have plenty of time to consider just how America's immigration laws might change. The White House and congressional leaders agreed last week on a plan, but there's enough skepticism that the Senate has agreed to debate the bill into June.

In a moment, we'll hear one the skeptics, Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama. We begin with NPR's Jennifer Ludden. Good morning.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: How widespread is the opposition to this bill?

LUDDEN: Widespread and growing every day, it seems. Business groups, unions, immigrant advocates, liberals, conservatives have all come out not liking various parts of this. What you have, what lawmakers call this grand bargain, is really a trade-off. It's a fairly generous legalization for the 12 million illegal immigrants in this country now in exchange for some limits on who can come in the future.

So you've got conservatives saying it's amnesty for those here now, and you've got some liberals worried that the limits in the future are too drastic. And everyone is saying it's so complex, they're really struggling to understand the implications here.

MONTAGNE: It certainly does have a quite few moving parts. Let's look at one of the more controversial ones, this guest worker program. How would that work?

LUDDEN: Well, it would call for 400,000 to 600,000 low skilled workers to come to the country every year. And by the way, one of the first amendments would cut that in half, and others plan to try and eliminate it all together. But whatever the number, Republican lawmakers who crafted this program wanted to make sure this was a truly temporary program, that these workers are not going to put down roots and stay. So here's what they come with, a six-year total that a worker could come and work in the U.S., but only two years at a time with a year's break in between. All right, you can see how business would really not like that. It's very disruptive.

What's more, the workers would not be able to bring their families unless they could prove they had health insurance for them and were making 150 percent above the poverty rate. Now, if they did bring their families, they'd be punished. The families could only be here for two years and the worker could then only come for two two-year periods instead of three. Even supporters of the program are wondering if this is going to be workable, and critics call it just cruel. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said it would just create a permanent underclass.

MONTAGNE: And the plan changes who could come here from the tradition that's been in setup over the last few decades.

LUDDEN: For four decades, we've had a very family-based system. Two-thirds of the visas - green cards were for those with relatives here. There would be a new system, a point system, to bring in more people based on their jobs skills, although it would just be still about third of the overall green cards. But you'd have points for, say, a graduate degree, fluency in English, if you are between 25 and 39, if you had skills in an area where we have worker shortages. Supporters say we need this to compete in the global economy. And some say bluntly, we really don't want so many low-wage workers here to be a drain in their old age.

Republican Jeff Sessions of Alabama yesterday said, look, the U.S. needs more immigrants who will pay more in taxes than they will take in social services. Now critics say this is inherently unfair if you just don't happen to be born in an English-speaking country. And some worry quite openly it's an attempt to limit migration of Latinos, who've been the biggest recent immigrant group taking a lot of the low-wage jobs.

MONTAGNE: Now, lawmakers have emphasized that security measures would have to be in place before the 12 million illegal immigrants here now would get permanent status, and what are those measures?

LUDDEN: Basically, you would have to have up to 18,000 Border Patrol agents. That's up from now almost 14,000, and that's a pretty big increase in a short time. We'd have to build 300 more miles of fencing on top of the 70 miles that are there now, some other high tech border measures. And then a key, a workplace enforcement system, a computer check program where businesses would check the legal status of their new hires. They're supposed to start doing that in 18 months. That's a very short timeframe. A lot less time than experts have said is really needed to get this up and going. So, again, we have this question of how could this really work.

MONTAGNE: Okay, NPR's Jennifer Ludden. Thanks very much.

LUDDEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.