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Immigration Moves Eyed

House Democrats Ponder an Election-Year Bill

House Democrats are crafting scaled-down immigration reform legislation despite the political minefields that surround the issue, with Hispanic Members seeking five-year visas for illegal immigrants who pay fines and pass criminal background checks.

Immigration reform had been left for dead after last year’s Senate train wreck, but pressures for at least stopgap immigration legislation have bubbled up within the Democratic Caucus.

It’s unclear if the behind-the-scenes discussions will actually result in a bill coming to the floor, but Democrats say drafts of legislation already have been written and are being vetted behind the scenes.

“There is the formation of a consensus,” said Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who said he’s seen a draft bill. “We’re looking at some kind of a compromise. It’s still comprehensive in nature but not to the extent we would like.”

Baca said the prospects for a compromise package were discussed in high-level meetings Wednesday that included Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), who chairs the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law. Baca said the emerging legislation did not have the broader reforms included in last year’s failed Senate immigration overhaul or in earlier measures backed by Hispanics, such as the DREAM Act.

But Baca said the key piece for Hispanics is a five-year visa for illegal immigrants who can prove they have a job. The visa is well short of past bills that would grant permanent legal status, which critics decried as “amnesty.”

“There is no path towards citizenship,” Baca said. “There are still fines and criminal background checks and you have to pay back taxes. This is what the taxpayers want.”

Baca said Democrats still are trying to work out exactly how the new visas would work or be enforced.

Baca said there also would be an expansion of visas for technical, temporary and agricultural workers — measures strongly backed by businesses and many Republicans.

But whether House leaders will actually put immigration on the floor with such a controversial provision as visas for illegal immigrants in an election year remains an open question.

Just last month at a Jan. 25 press conference, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) predicted nothing would happen this year on immigration, blaming the president for failing to get enough Republican support last year.

“I don’t think we’ll get anything done this year,” Reid said at a National Press Club event with Pelosi. “We have the presidential election, we have a number of very important House and Senate races, and our time is really squeezed.”

Pelosi also sounded a pessimistic note at the press conference. “If it isn’t going to happen in the Senate, it’s not going to happen. But it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t need to happen, and we have to continue to work together because there are too many aspects of our economy, if we’re just talking pragmatically, that depend on a comprehensive immigration reform.”

Emanuel said Thursday at a press conference that House Democrats are looking to address both the issues of legal and illegal immigration without waiting on the Senate, although he did not discuss specifics.

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