U.S. Senate Nearing Agreement on Immigration Deal

WASHINGTON (AP) -

Key U.S. senators expressed optimism that they were nearing a bipartisan agreement to toughen border security requirements in immigration legislation that also offers a path to citizenship to millions living in the country illegally.

Under the emerging compromise, the government would grant legal status to immigrants living in the United States unlawfully at the same time the additional border security is being put into place. Green cards, which signify permanent residency status, would be withheld until the security steps are complete.

Such a deal could give a powerful boost to the immigration bill at the top of President Barack Obama’s second-term domestic agenda.

A bipartisan group of key senators has been working out an immigration overhaul in recent months. In addition to border security measures and a pathway to citizenship, the bill provides more visas for highly-skilled workers prized by the technology industry, a guest worker farm program and a new program for lower-skilled workers to come to the U.S.

Precise details of the pending agreement in the Senate were unavailable, although the legislation already envisions more border agents; additional fencing along the U.S-Mexico border; surveillance drones; a requirement for employers to verify the legal status of potential workers; and a biometric system to track foreigners who enter and leave the United States at air and seaports and by land.

Sen. Chuck Schumer, one of the bill’s most prominent supporters, said discussions with Republicans “have been really productive. We’ve made a lot of progress in the last 24 hours. Now we have some vetting to do with our respective allies.”

The potential compromise came into focus one day after the Congressional Budget Office jolted lawmakers with an estimate saying that the legislation as currently written would fail to prevent a steady future increase in the number of residents living in the United States illegally.

The estimate appeared to give added credibility to Republicans who have been pressing Obama’s Democrats to toughen the bill’s border security provisions. Some Republicans have been unwilling to support a bill that grants legal status to immigrants in the country illegally until the government certifies that the border security steps have achieved 90 percent effectiveness.

For their part, Democrats have opposed Republican proposals to make legalization contingent on success in closing the border to illegal crossings. Under the legislation as drafted, legalization could begin as soon as a security plan was drafted, but a 10-year wait is required for a green card.