Kennedy spoke after a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee into two immigration reform bills that take strongly diverging roads towards long anticipated change in U.S. immigration law.
Kennedy said he would “resist any attempt” to get rid of the diversity visas which are named after Senator Charles Schumer, who is himself a member of the judiciary panel.
The committee, which is chaired by Senator Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, was briefed by Democrat Kennedy and GOP senator John McCain who have drawn up their own immigration bill.
Also testifying were Senators John Cornyn and Jon Kyl, both Republicans, who have jointly crafted a bill that proposes to scrap the Schumer scheme.
The Cornyn/Kyl proposal is called the Comprehensive Enforcement and Immigration Reform Act of 2005.
The Kennedy/McCain bill is the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act of 2005.
While the numbers of diversity visas awarded annually to Irish applicants are confined to the low hundreds, the Schumer program is currently the only way that Irish people hoping to emigrate to the U.S. can obtain legal visas with relatively few strings or restrictions attached.
In the latest batch of visas issued, 145 applicants from the Republic of Ireland were successful, while 63 visas were awarded to applicants from Northern Ireland.
Kennedy said after the hearing that changes to immigration laws were “inevitable” but that he would push for the diversity visa program to be maintained.
“There is a very substantial and legitimate reason for the diversity visas, especially at this time,” Kennedy said.
By contrast, John Keeley of the non-partisan Center for Immigration Studies in Washington said he believed that the diversity visas, initially offered in
1994, had outgrown their usefulness.
“The big problem is that annually more than 10 million apply for longterm visas to enter the U.S. and the lottery system in which they distribute the diversity visas does not make any sense anymore in this post-September 11th world,” Keeley said.
He said the U.S. should look at the Canadian immigration paradigm which awards points for education, fluency in English, and life skills as entrance criteria for legal immigrants.
Keeley predicted that the more conservative leanings in the House of Representatives would preclude the success of Kennedy/McCain in its current form.
“There’s no way in hell the House will pass anything like the amnesty that Kennedy/McCain is offering,” he said.
The two sides in the Senate did agree that an enlarged temporary “guest
Worker” scheme would enhance the current immigration landscape. President Bush has signaled a willingness to endorse such a program.
For those currently living in the U.S. illegally, thousands of Irish included, the Kennedy/McCain proposal offers hope. It would allow those already living here to pay a fine and become regularized through documentation and verification of employment.
The Cornyn/Kyl bill offers no such provision for the undocumented and would
emphasize punitive measures against illegal aliens and deportation strategies as well as increase border and airport immigration controls.
It would also mandate that those already in the U.S. illegally return home before receiving any updated legal status, this following a strict application process.
“Our proposal requires undocumented workers in the U.S. to register and to go through the normal immigration process. They must depart the United States and then reenter in legal status,” Sen. Cornyn testified before the judiciary committee.
The Cornyn/Kyl proposal also calls for home countries of immigrants contribute to the health care costs of their citizens who are in the process of attaining new citizenship status in the U.S.
Changes to current law are not expected to be made by Congress this year, but debate over the new legislation is expected to be extensive and acrimonious at times when it gather momentum after the summer congressional recess.
“It’s going to happen,” predicted Sen. Kennedy.
“If it doesn’t happen at the end of this year, I would expect it to be completed at the beginning of the next,” Kennedy said.
The Los Angeles Times reported that Bush is planning to make immigration a “top-tier priority” for his administration as early as this fall.