Closing in on a Major Shift in Immigration Policy

In what could be a sweeping change for immigration policy, several senators Tuesday were mapping out a plan that could make every illegal immigrant in this country legal.

It is one of the most controversial issues and one of the most divisive to be debated in Washington in recent years. Just this week, the Texas town of Farmers Branch made national headlines for passing an ordinance barring landlords from renting to illegal aliens. (The ordinance is already being challenged in the courts.)

Late into the evening five key senators were working on legislation that would produce a path to citizenship for the 12 million immigrants now in this country illegally.

The White House is keeping quiet about the potential deal, but the key negotiators are a group of five, bipartisan senators: Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., Ken Salazar, D-Calif., and Arlen Specter, R-Pa. -- legislators who hail from the left, right, and center of the political spectrum.

What the senators are discussing is a key provision that would give visas to the 12 million people who are in the country illegally.

Once given a visa, they would have eight years to pay a $5,000 fine and return to their country of origin to get another visa. Then, they could come back. And once that happened, they would be on the road to permanent residency and citizenship.

If the senators work out a deal, they're unlikely to use the politically problematic word amnesty in the legislation. But it's reasonable to expect that critics of the deal will.

The plan will have to get past resistance from conservative members of Congress. There are also some legislators on the left who don't like the guest worker provisions and some of the family unification provisions.

One of the key negotiators, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., was optimistic. When he left the meeting, he said the chances of the deal are "80/20."

The deal could still fall apart, or it could come together as early as tomorrow.

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