By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A bipartisan plan brokered in the House of Representatives will be tougher on illegal immigrants living in the United States than a Senate counterpart, congressional aides said on Friday.
But it fails to address the difficult issue of how many low-skilled foreign workers should be allowed into the country.
Late on Thursday, the eight Republican and Democratic House negotiators working on an immigration bill announced that they had successfully wrapped up a four-year effort and had hammered out a tentative deal.
Republican Representative Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida, one of the negotiators, told reporters on Friday that he was "confident" that the deal will get a full airing in the House Judiciary Committee that has oversight of immigration policy.
Many Republican members of that panel are opposed to moving a comprehensive bill and instead want to take smaller steps to further bolster U.S. borders against illegal crossings and to improve access for foreign high-skilled workers.
While the lawmakers themselves refused to discuss details, which will be translated into legislative language over the next week or two, some congressional aides familiar with the plan sketched out bits of the agreement on Friday.
According to those aides, the House measure, as expected, will set a 15-year path to citizenship for the approximately 11 million undocumented residents, many of whom have been in the United States for years and are raising families here.
The Senate bill, which is now being debated in that chamber's Judiciary Committee, sets a 13-year time frame.
Like the Senate bill, those illegal immigrants who are serving in the military or who were brought over the border as children with their parents, would be put on a faster path to citizenship. But details were not available.
The Service Employees International Union said the tentative deal showed that momentum for immigration legislation was building. Eliseo Medina, secretary-treasurer of the 2.1 million-member union, added that it was "the responsibility of the House leadership to ensure this bipartisanship continues."
Congressional aides confirmed that the negotiators failed to agree on one of the most contentious issues in immigration reform efforts: the future flow of workers from abroad that American firms want to hire as construction workers, hotel maids, waiters and for other low-skilled jobs.
Instead, if and when a comprehensive immigration bill reaches the full House, Democrats and Republicans will offer competing amendments to try to resolve the matter, according to aides. Republicans control the House by a narrow majority.
The bill in the Democratic-controlled Senate relies on a low-skilled worker program that was worked out by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO labor organization.
That deal has been criticized by some business interests as providing too few slots for foreign workers hoping to apply for American construction jobs. Labor unions have been pushing hard for stringent controls, saying a flood of foreign workers would displace domestic job-seekers.
Aides said that the House deal also would be more stringent than the Senate bill by requiring the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to achieve new border security measures before the 11 million undocumented immigrants could begin moving into legal status.
The Senate effort requires DHS to pursue tough border security measures. But the 11 million would be able to move almost immediately to temporary legal status.
However, in at least one area, the House measure might be viewed as more progressive than the Senate bill, according to an aide.
"People will find the family reunification (provision) is better under the House plan than the Senate plan," the aide said. Like the Senate bill, the House deal eliminates an avenue for siblings living abroad to win visas.
But the aide said the House bill will grant more leeway than its Senate counterpart on granting visas to adult offspring of U.S. residents.
One of the last areas of disagreement among the House negotiators had to do with whether newly legalized residents would be able to participate in President Barack Obama's healthcare law.
Republicans want to include a provision specifying that they would have to buy their own health insurance.
It was not yet clear how that dispute was worked out.
(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Editing by Eric Beech)