WASHINGTON (AP) _ Republicans and Democrats struggled Wednesday over the final details of an elusive deal that would grant quick legal status to millions of illegal immigrants living in the U.S. and fortify the border.
Among the last sticking points was how much family ties should count toward green cards under a new so-called ``point system'' that prioritizes advanced skills and education levels for future immigrants. A key hurdle was cleared when negotiators agreed that low-skilled workers could also receive credit toward permanent legal status.
There was still a chance that sensitive talks among senators and the White House could collapse before a deal is reached. But key players said they were hopeful that the emerging bipartisan compromise would set the stage for a wide-ranging Senate immigration debate next week. The divisive issue carries political risks for both parties.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, the Democrats' lead negotiator, called Thursday ``D-Day'' for an agreement, noting that it's senators' last day in town before an immigration vote scheduled for Monday evening.
``I'm hopeful that it will happen,'' Kennedy said.
Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., another key player, said the still-developing bill could bridge what has been a wide gulf between the two parties on immigration that killed chances for a law in 2006.
``This has the potential to do much better than last year and be truly a bipartisan bill,'' Kyl said.
President Bush, eager to enact an immigration overhaul, has sent Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez to weeks of private meetings with lawmakers in search of a compromise.
``The best way, and, frankly, the only way to get a comprehensive bill done that will matter and deal with this issue once and for all, is for the bipartisan approach that we're now working on to come to fruition,'' Bush said. ``There is a good chance'' of an agreement, he added.
Still, liberals and conservatives alike are skeptical of the proposal. Some Republicans contend it is too lenient in how it treats the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, while some Democrats call it too restrictive toward future immigrants and unfair to families.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he was concerned with elements of the outline after hearing strident complaints from interest groups.
``Our immigration system is broken and certainly needs to be fixed. But in the process we don't want to make it worse than what it was to start with,'' Reid said.
The proposed agreement would allow illegal immigrants to come forward and obtain a ``Z visa.'' After paying fees, a $5,000 fine and then returning to their home countries, they could get on track for permanent residency, which could take between eight and 13 years.
They could come forward right away to claim a probationary card that would let them live and work legally in the U.S. That was an important goal for Democrats, who are eager to allow undocumented immigrants to adjust their status as soon as possible.
The illegal population could not, however, begin the path to permanent residency or citizenship until completion of border security improvements and a high-tech worker identification program.
A new temporary guest worker program also would have to wait until those ``triggers'' had been activated. This is a priority for conservatives, who had previously insisted on strengthening the border before they would act on a broader immigration bill.
All but the highest-skilled temporary workers would have to return home after work stints of two years, with barely any opportunity to apply for permanent legal status or ever become U.S. citizens. They could renew their guest worker visas twice but would be required to leave for a year in between each time. Democrats had pressed instead for guest workers to be permitted to stay and work indefinitely in the U.S.
The workers also would be barred from bringing their families with them, unless they stayed for only two years and could show they would not be primarily dependent on government benefits.
In perhaps the most hotly debated change, the proposed plan would shift from an immigration system primarily weighted toward family ties toward one with preferences for people with advanced degrees and sophisticated skills. Republicans have long sought such revisions, which they say are needed to end ``chain migration'' that harms the economy, while some Democrats and liberal groups say it's an unfair system that rips families apart.
Under the proposal, some points would be awarded to immigrants who had low skills, had held jobs in the U.S., or had relatives who were citizens, but those would hold a lower priority. Family connections alone would no longer be enough to qualify for a green card _ except for spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens.
New limits would apply to U.S. citizens seeking to bring foreign-born parents into the country.
Staff aides were scrambling to solve outstanding disagreements on how to treat agricultural workers and foreign-born children of illegal immigrants.
Kennedy described the framework as far from what he would have crafted. ``But we're not dealing just with that. This is a legislative process, and a lot of different interests are at work,'' he said.