A Last Gasp For Immigration Reform?

Sharyl Attkisson is the Capitol Hill Correspondent for CBS News.
Listen closely to the talk on Capitol Hill the next few days and you just may hear the sounds of immigration reform dying a slow death, at least until 2009. Here's why.

CBS News has learned a core group of Democrats and Republicans has been holding lengthy talks with White House officials. Their goal was to write a bill that, unlike last year's effort, would be a bipartisan work product at the outset and, in theory, stand the best chance of being embraced by all sides in the immigration equation.

The group includes key players in the debate: Senator Kyl-R, a chief opponent of last year's failed immigration reform bill; Senator Salazar-D, who wrote it; and Senator Isakson-R. who wants nothing done until the border is secured. Also in the meetings: Senators Graham-R, Kennedy-D, Menendez-D, Cornyn-R, Feinstein-D and Specter-R. The White House was represented by Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff.

The group met for hours two or three times a week for the past two months. They argued, negotiated, and compromised, and did it all without holding press conferences or spinning their positions. The details are still being finessed. But at last word, the plan included some important differences over last year's attempt:

The borders would be secured before any citizenship measures for illegals are triggered.

Security of the borders would be evaluated by tangible measures such as miles of fence built and number of border patrol agents hired.

The borders would have to be certified as "secure" by the Department of Homeland Security.

Next would come the process to handle an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants. Some new provisions are added here as well:
A merit system similar to Canada's under which immigrants would earn points toward citizenship. Points would be granted for things like work skills and language ability.

All of us, Americans and non-Americans alike, would have to prove U.S. citizenship to employers when getting a new job.

Green cards would no longer be given to extended families. No more second cousins and parents. Instead, green cards would be limited to the worker, spouse and minor children. That would free up more green cards for workers with the labor skills needed in the U.S.

The problem comes in crossing the finish line. With immigration scheduled to be tackled in the Senate over the next two weeks, there are still a daunting number of details to be agreed on. Democrats and Republicans have begun breaking the silence and are starting the spin. And it all sounds a lot like it did last year. One side says it all amounts to amnesty. The other side says it doesn't.

There's not much time to fight it out. I'm told that if there isn't a pretty firm bipartisan bill ready to go in the next day or two -- not last year's version but a new one -- the chances are slim for getting immigration reform done in the two weeks allotted in the Senate. And that may be the last time anybody tries for a long time. Because although most Americans want to see some type of reform, both sides say the topic is too politically touchy, too risky, too volatile, too hot to handle as we mover closer to the 2008 elections.

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    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.