Immigration Bills May Split Republicans

Sheriffs from Texas, from left, Arvin West, Oscar Carrillo and Clint McDonald, attend a congressional hearing on border security.
Sheriffs from Texas, from left, Arvin West, Oscar Carrillo and Clint McDonald, attend a congressional hearing on border security. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 2, 2006

The Senate will begin work today on legislation to overhaul the nation's immigration laws and plug its porous borders, but a bipartisan push to create a new guest worker program has put Senate Republicans on a collision course with their counterparts in the House.

The immigration question -- one of the volatile issues in this election year -- has split Republicans as no other issue before Congress. Vociferous opponents of illegal immigration are at odds with business interests and their allies, including President Bush, who are keen on establishing new, legal avenues to bolster the labor force.

Many Republicans, especially those from the West, have said passage of legislation to enforce border security is vital to their reelection, and do not want this merged with other measures that would open up work options for immigrants.

On the other side, supporters yesterday talked up efforts to open new opportunities for migrant workers. "I smell victory in the air," thundered Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), at a rally of immigrant hotel workers in Union Station.

Privately, however, voices on both sides concede they would rather see legislation die in Congress than accept the compromises that may be necessary to win passage. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) wants a bill to the Senate floor by March 27, but aides say the Senate Judiciary Committee could take three weeks just to draft one.

"This is going to be very, very difficult," said Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), who supports a guest worker program and says immigration is one of the top two or three topics roiling the country. "You've got a lot of emotions on both sides."

"The gap is huge," agreed Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), who has been leading the charge for a bill that deals only with border security. "I don't think you can square this circle."

Beginning today, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) will try, when his committee begins drafting the Senate's answer to a tough border security bill that passed the House in December with no guest worker plan. The draft would authorize the hiring of new border agents, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles and other new technologies on the border, expand the definition of "alien smuggling" to combat those who shelter illegal immigrants, and toughen penalties on smugglers and illegal immigrants who repeatedly cross the border.

But the controversy will lie with his new H-2C visa, which could be offered to hotel workers, cleaners, restaurant workers, meat processors and other "essential occupations" by employers who say they could not fill the posts with a U.S. worker. The visa would be good for six years, after which workers would have to return to their home countries for at least a year. The visa would offer no special path toward citizenship or a legal "green card."

Specter said his approach rejects those who simply want to throw all illegal immigrants out of the country immediately, but it also does not offer a permanent reward for those who entered the country illegally.

"We're trying to bring 11 million people out of the shadows, and if you start by saying you're going to kick them all out, who's going to come out of the shadows?" he asked. "But at the same time, you don't want them to benefit from breaking the law, so let them work, but don't move them toward citizenship."

The White House sounded a sympathetic note toward Specter's efforts.

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