BY DAVID ESPO AND ERICA WERNER, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON — After secretive talks, key senators expressed optimism Wednesday night that they were closing in on a bipartisan agreement to toughen the 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 security was being put into place. Green cards, which signify permanent residency status, would be withheld until the security steps were complete.

If agreed to, the change has the potential to give a powerful boost to the immigration bill that is at the top of President Barack Obama's second-term domestic agenda.

The developments came as Democrats who met with House Speaker John Boehner during the day quoted him as saying he expects the House to pass its own version of an immigration bill this summer and for Congress to have a final compromise by year's end. Boehner, R-Ohio, has already said the legislation that goes to the House in the next month or two will not include a pathway to citizenship for those in the United States illegally.

Precise details of the pending agreement in the Senate were unavailable, but Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said it involved a major increase of resources to the border, including more manpower, fencing and technology. The underlying 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; as well as a biometric system to track foreigners who enter and leave the United States at air and seaports and by land.

"Our whole effort has been to build a bipartisan group that will support the bill," said Hoeven, who has not yet stated a position on the legislation. "That's what this is all about, and it's focused on border security."

Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., 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 as drafted, the legislation would fail to prevent a steady increase in the future in the number of residents living in the United States illegally.

The estimate appeared to give added credibility to Republicans who have been pressing Democrats to toughen the border security provisions already written into the bill. Schumer and Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., met at midday with Hoeven, and Republican Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee, John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. The Democrats, McCain and Graham are part of the so-called bipartisan Gang of Eight that drafted the bill.

If ratified, the compromise would mark concessions on both sides.

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 in stopping would-be border crossers.

On the other hand, 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.

One plan to change that was sidetracked during the day on a vote of 61-37.

Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said his proposal would require Congress to vote annually for five years on whether the border is secure. If lawmakers decide it is not, "then the processing of undocumented workers stops until" it is, he said. The decision would be made based on numerous factors, including progress toward completion of a double-layered fence along the U.S.-Mexico border and toward a goal of 95 percent capture of illegal entrants. A system to track the border comings and goings of foreigners is also required.

Only a day earlier, the CBO had cheered supporters of the bill with an estimate that it would help the economy and reduce deficits in each of the next two decades.

Now it was the skeptics' turn to crow.

"Illegality will not be stopped, but it will only be reduced by 25 percent," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., referring to the prediction by the non-partisan CBO.

While the public debate was taking place, lawmakers involved in the private talks expressed optimism.

"We're on the verge of doing something dramatic on the border," Graham told reporters. "What we're trying to do is put in place measures that to any reasonable person would be an overwhelming effort to secure our border. This is a key moment in the effort to pass the bill."

Across the Capitol, House Republican leaders sought to present a friendlier face to Hispanics – a group that gave Obama more than 70 percent support in last year's presidential election.

Boehner met with the Democratic-dominated Congressional Hispanic Caucus, while rank and file members of his party reviewed areas of agreement with faith-based Latino leaders.

"It's a conversation Republicans want to have," Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., said later at a news conference outside the Capitol.

At the same time, though, anti-immigration protesters moved across the Capitol plaza into range of television cameras, raising signs that said, "Do Not Reward Criminals" and "No Amnesty for Illegal Aliens."

Separately, the House Judiciary Committee worked on legislation creating a program allowing farm workers to come to the United States to take temporary jobs in the United States.

The measure is one of several that the panel is considering in the final weeks of June as part of a piece-by-piece approach to immigration rather than the all-in-one bill that Senate is considering.

In addition to border security measures and a pathway to citizenship for millions of immigrants in the country illegally, the Senate 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 United States.

___

Associated Press writer Laurie Kellman contributed to this report.

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  • The Template: California Proposition 187 (1994)

    California's Proposition 187 was submitted to the voters with the full support of then Republican governor Pete Wilson. It essentially blamed undocumented immigrants for the poor performance of the state economy in the early 1990s. The law called for cutting off benefits to undocumented immigrants: prohibiting their access to health care, public education, and other social services in California. It also required state authorities to report anyone who they suspected was undocumented. <strong>Status:</strong> The law passed with the support of 55 percent of the voters in 1994 but declared unconstitutional 1997. The law was killed in 1999 when a new governor, Democrat Gray Davis, refused to appeal a judicial decision that struck down most of the law. Even though short-lived, the legislation paved the way for harsher immigration laws to come. On the other hand, the strong reaction from the Hispanic community and immigration advocates propelled a drive for naturalization of legal residents and created as many as one million new voters.

  • The Worst: Arizona SB 1070

    The Arizona Act made it a misdemeanor for an undocumented immigrant to be within the state lines of Arizona without legal documents allowing their presence in the U.S. This law has been widely criticized as xenophobic and for encouraging racial profiling. It requires state authorities to inquire about an individual's immigration status during an arrest when there is "reasonable suspicion" that the individual is undocumented. The law would allow police to detain anyone who they believe was in the country illegally. <strong>Status:</strong> The law was signed into law by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer on April 23, 2010. But it has generated a swirl of controversy and questions about its constitutionality. A federal judge issued a ruling that blocked what critics saw as some of the law's harshest provisions. House: 35-31 (4/12/2011)

  • Following Arizona's Footsteps: Georgia HB 87

    The controversy over Arizona's immigration law was followed by heated debate over Georgia's own law. HB 87 required government agencies and private companies to check the immigration status of applicants. This law also limited some government benefits to people who could prove their legal status. <strong>Status:</strong> Although a federal judge temporarily blocked parts of the law considered too extreme, it went into effect on July 1st. 2011. House: 113-56 Senate: 39-17

  • Verifying Authorized Workers: Pennsylvania HB 1502

    This bill, which was approved in 2010, bans contractors and subcontractors employ undocumented workers from having state construction contracts. The bill also protects employees who report construction sites that hire illegal workers. To ensure that contractors hire legal workers, the law requires employers to use the identification verification system E-verify, based on a compilation of legally issued Social Security numbers. <strong>Status:</strong> Approved on June 8th 2010. House: 188-6 (07/08/2010) <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/donkeyhotey/" target="_hplink">Flickr photo by DonkeyHotey</a>

  • A Spin Off of Arizona: Utah HB 497

    Many states tried to emulate Arizona's SB 1070 law. However, most state legislatures voted against the proposals. Utah's legislature managed to approve an immigration law based on a different argument. Taking into consideration the criticism of racial profiling in Arizona, Utah required ID cards for "guest workers" and their families. In order to get such a card workers must pay a fee and have clean records. The fees go up to $2,500 for immigrants who entered the country illegally and $1,000 for immigrants who entered the country legally but were not complying with federal immigration law, <a href="http://articles.latimes.com/2011/mar/06/nation/la-na-illegal-immigration-20110306" target="_hplink">according to the LA Times.</a> <strong>Status: </strong> Law went into effect on 03/15/2011 House: 59-15 (03/04/2011) Senate: 22-5 (03/04/2011)

  • The Most Comprehensive: Florida HB-1C

    Florida's immigration law prohibits any restrictions on the enforcement of federal immigration law. It makes it unlawful for undocumented immigrants within the state to apply for work or work as an independent contractor. It forbids employers from hiring immigrants if they are aware of their illegal status and requires work applicants to go through the E-verify system in order to check their Social Security number. <strong>Status: </strong>effective since October 1st, 2010

  • The Hot Seat: Alabama HB 56

    The new immigration law in Alabama is considered the toughest in the land, even harder than Arizona's SB 1070. It prohibits law enforcement officers from releasing an arrested person before his or her immigration status is determined. It does not allow undocumented immigrants to receive any state benefit, and prohibits them from enrolling in public colleges, applying for work or soliciting work in a public space. The law also prohibits landlords from renting property to undocumented immigrants, and employers from hiring them. It requires residents to prove they are citizens before they become eligible to vote. The law asked every school in the state to submit an annual report with the number of presumed undocumented students, but this part, along with others, were suspended by federal courts. <strong>Status:</strong> Approved June 2nd, 2011 House: 73-28 (04/05/2011) Senate: 23-11 (05/05/2011) <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/longislandwins/" target="_hplink">Flickr photo by longislandwins</a>