WASHINGTON - Senators writing a major immigration law overhaul bill moved yesterday toward accepting an approach under which illegal immigrants could stay in the United States while working toward permanent residence and eventual citizenship.
Senator Kennedy, a Democrat Massachusetts, stressed that his plan moving through the Senate Judiciary Committee would not constitute an amnesty, a policy rejected by the Bush administration and most Americans, according to polls. Mr. Kennedy said it would not give the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally any advantage over the 3 million living overseas while waiting for a decision on green card applications.
Committee Chairman Arlen Specter said the panel would consider the proposal put forward by Mr. Kennedy and Senator McCain when it reconvenes on March 27 after a weeklong recess.
Senate Majority Leader Frist, a Republican of Tennessee, has made clear that immigration reform will be on the chamber's floor that week, regardless of whether the Judiciary Committee comes up with a comprehensive bill.
Congress, at the urging of President Bush, has made immigration reform a top priority for this election-year session, pushing forward proposals combining immigration enforcement, a guest worker program and a policy toward people living in the country illegally.
The future treatment of undocumented immigrants, Mr. Kennedy said, "really is the heart and soul of this whole undertaking."
The McCain-Kennedy plan would allow those in the country illegally to obtain six-year nonimmigrant visas under which they could work in the country and travel outside the country. They would have to pay a $1,000 fine and undergo background checks.
After six years, the immigrant who pays back taxes, is learning English and pays an additional $1,000 fine can apply for a green card, or permanent residency.
Mr. Specter, a Republican of Pennsylvania, said the committee would vote on a version of the McCain-Kennedy proposal on the 27th. There would also be a vote on the chief alternative, offered by Senators Cornyn, a Republican of Texas, and Kyl, a Republican of Arizona, that would give illegal immigrants up to five years to leave the country. These immigrants could apply from their home country to return, either as temporary workers or for permanent residency.
"Our intention is not to strand anyone outside the country," Mr. Kyl said. But he said the McCain-Kennedy plan would give an illegal immigrant allowed to stay and work in the country a "huge advantage" over a person having to wait for years in his or her own country for a green card.
But with Democrats, and several Republicans, on the committee behind McCain-Kennedy, it appeared to have the edge.
Messrs. Cornyn and Kennedy said they would work over the recess next week on the structure of a guest worker program, which would start out with 400,000 visas. The committee is also expected to take up a separate provision for temporary agriculture workers in preparation for debate on the floor.