By Bryan Sanders of the CBS News Political Unit.
Republican Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl of Arizona recently introduced competing immigration reform bills, highlighting yet another GOP split on an issue President Bush has made a priority for his second term.
McCain's legislation, the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act, is co-sponsored by liberal Democrat Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, making it a bipartisan alternative to Kyl's bill, which is co-sponsored by Texas Republican John Cornyn, but has yet to gain support from any Senate Democrats.
Immigration reform is expected to rise to the top of the legislative agenda when Congress returns in September, due in part to the declining momentum for Social Security reform, but also because a state of emergency on the U.S.-Mexico border was declared last week by the governors of New Mexico and Arizona.
There is emerging consensus at the state and national level that the U.S. immigration system is broken and needs to be fixed. On both sides of the aisle, legislators identify enhancing border security as a key component of homeland security, made urgent by the threat of Islamist terrorists taking advantage of weak enforcement on America's borders.
In terms of enforcement, the Kyl-Cornyn and McCain-Kennedy bills are similar. Each addresses border security using a variety of methods, including new technologies, broader cooperation and increased manpower.
Where the competing proposals diverge is on two more contentious issues: a guest worker program and the status of illegal aliens already living in the United States.
A guest worker program is the centerpiece of Mr. Bush's immigration reform agenda, and the competing bills both call for establishing one. The idea of such a program is to allow foreign workers to apply for temporary visas to come to America and work low-skill jobs American citizens do not want.
But the Arizona Republicans are at odds over the length of stay for the guest workers, and whether these workers will ultimately be permitted to apply for green cards before they return home.
Kyl-Cornyn limits guest workers to three separate two-year terms in the United States. After each term, the workers must return home for at least a year. Guest workers will not be permitted to apply for a green card before leaving America and applying for one through regular legal channels.
Where there is greatest daylight between the bills — and what may prove the greatest obstacle to comprehensive immigration reform — is the status of the 11 million illegal immigrants now living in the United States.
The McCain-Kennedy bill allows illegal immigrants already in the United States to apply for a guest worker visa as long as they have no criminal record and can show a work history. After six years, immigrant workers can apply for permanent status, if they meet strict language and civics requirements, and pay back taxes and fines of $2,000 or more per adult.
Kyl-Cornyn requires illegal immigrants now in the United States to turn themselves in to authorities to be deported, and then apply for legal status after they return home. If they do not leave the United States within five years, they will not be allowed to apply for a guest worker visa for at least 10 years thereafter.
Opponents of Kyl-Cornyn refer to this approach as "report to deport." At a recent hearing on immigration, McCain criticized his fellow Arizona Republican's idea, saying it "borders on fantasy."
When asked to respond to McCain's remark, Cornyn told CBS News his legislation "provides a way for (undocumented immigrants) to return home in an orderly, humane fashion, and over the course of up to five years. Then they can immediately re-enter the United States through legal means, which ensures that all immigrants have a fair path towards permanent residence and citizenship, and that none receive special treatment."
A Pew Hispanic Center poll released last week shows 84 percent of Americans favor a plan allowing illegal immigrants to stay and work in the United States with an opportunity to become citizens later. The same poll shows Americans, to a slightly lesser degree, are also sympathetic to the Kyl-Cornyn approach.
Some conservative groups have declared they will fight any legislation including so-called "amnesty" for illegal immigrants, but most business, labor and Hispanic groups are behind the McCain-Kennedy bill. Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, a leading conservative Republican with presidential aspirations, has signed on as a co-sponsor.
For Republicans considering a run to succeed Mr. Bush as the party's nominee for the White House in 2008, immigration is a thorny issue. They are under pressure to strike a balance between the concerns of conservative primary voters favoring a hard-line approach, and those of Hispanics, who are largely sympathetic to the plight of migrant workers, and represent a pivotal voting bloc in the general election.
A few House Republicans have doubts about both of the competing GOP immigration bills before the Senate. The most vocal of these critics, Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, has threatened to raise the stakes. If none of the major candidates for the GOP nomination in 2008 takes a more restrictive approach on immigration, Tancredo has declared he will run for president himself to put the issue on the table. While not a household name, Tancredo has generated a buzz among the political right.
Conservative Patrick Ruffini who puts a straw poll on his blog has added Tancredo to his list of '08 candidates. So far he is getting only 5 percent of the votes but he topped Bill Frist, Sam Brownback, Mike Huckabee, Chuck Hagel and George Pataki in the August poll.