US immigration reform prospects brighten

Washington, April 8 (IANS) Prospects of comprehensive immigration reforms to resolve the issue of over 11 million undocumented immigrants, including an estimated 260,000 Indians, appear fairly bright as US lawmakers return after spring break Monday.

Two bipartisan groups of legislators in both the Senate and the House of Representatives are working on separate plans to offer an eventual path to citizenship to those living in the shadows while doing jobs that no American wants.

President Barack Obama, who has made immigration reform a key priority of his second term, has his own backup plan if the two chambers fail to come up with a legislation in a reasonable time frame. The Senate's bipartisan "Gang of Eight" - four Democrats and four Republicans - are reported to have tentatively reached agreement on some of the thorniest issues like reforms to the creation of a system to assess the state of border security.

The Senate proposal could come "in the next couple of weeks," Republican senator Lindsey Graham told NBC Sunday.

But the party's 2008 Republican presidential nominee John McCain said he still thinks "it's very likely" and "very possible" to have it done by the end of the week.

"I'm guardedly optimistic. I can't guarantee it. But we have literally almost all of the issues resolved," he said.

Specifically, the senators have agreed to a 13-year path to citizenship, CNN reported citing an unnamed source. It would take 10 years for undocumented workers to get a green card, and then another three years to gain citizenship.

Along the way, undocumented workers would have to pay a fine and back taxes, and pass a background check. The size of the fine remains unclear, CNN said.

Meanwhile, a bipartisan group of House members is working on its own version of immigration reform.

Two members of the House "Gang of Eight"- Democrat Luis Gutierrez and Republican Mario Diaz-Balart - sounded confident Sunday that their upcoming proposal will ultimately mesh well with the Senate's proposal, despite expected battles over the issue in both chambers in the months ahead.

Amid reports of an impending agreement, the New York Times said the debate about immigration reform has properly focused on the 11 million unauthorized immigrants.

But "broad reform should also include improvements to employment-based visas and green cards that make it possible to attract and keep highly skilled workers in technology, medical and educational fields, among others," it said in an editorial.

Instead of hard caps for work visas, Congress should use flexible limits that are adjusted based on economic conditions, the Times suggested among other things.

It also suggested that the per-country limits that restrict immigrants from any one country to 7 percent of the 140,000 employer-sponsored green cards issued annually should be reviewed, and perhaps eliminated.

"These restrictions, which were first put in place in 1965 to replace racial quotas, create a green card bottleneck for workers from populous countries like India, China and Mexico," the Times said.

(Arun Kumar can be contacted at arun.kumar@ians.in)