By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 28, 2006
A key Senate panel broke with the House's get-tough approach to illegal immigration yesterday and sent to the floor a broad revision of the nation's immigration laws that would provide lawful employment to millions of undocumented workers while offering work visas to hundreds of thousands of new immigrants every year.
With bipartisan support, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 12 to 6 to side with President Bush's general approach to an immigration issue that is dividing the country, fracturing the Republican Party and ripening into one of the biggest political debates of this election year. Conservatives have loudly demanded that the government tighten control of U.S. borders and begin deporting illegal immigrants. But in recent weeks, the immigrant community has risen up in protest, marching by the hundreds of thousands to denounce what they see as draconian measures under consideration in Washington.
"There is no issue outside of civil rights that brings out the kind of emotions we have seen," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), one of the bill's primary sponsors, who called the controversy "a defining issue of our times."
Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) rushed committee members to complete their work to meet a midnight deadline imposed by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who favors a tougher approach more in line with the version passed by the House last December. But once the committee had acted, Frist declined to say last night whether he would substitute the committee's legislation for his own, which includes no guest-worker program.
Frist's efforts to wrest control of the issue from the Judiciary Committee could produce a power struggle among Republicans once the majority leader brings up the issue for debate and votes in the full Senate, probably this week. Specter and the other committee leaders may have to muscle their bill through as an amendment if Frist refuses to back down.
Frist, a presidential aspirant whom Bush helped elect as majority leader, favors tightening control of the nation's borders without granting what he calls amnesty to the approximately 11 million illegal immigrants living in this country. But Bush favors a comprehensive approach, which he says must include some program to answer business's need for immigrant labor.
"Congress needs to pass a comprehensive bill that secures the border, improves interior enforcement, and creates a temporary-worker program to strengthen our security and our economy," Bush said yesterday at a ceremony to swear in 30 new U.S. citizens from 20 countries. "Completing a comprehensive bill is not going to be easy. It will require all of us in Washington to make tough choices and make compromises."
Polls indicate about 60 percent of Americans oppose guest-worker programs that would offer illegal immigrants an avenue to lawful work status, and three-quarters of the country believe the government is doing too little to secure the nation's borders.
But the immigrant community has been galvanized by what it sees as a heavy-handed crackdown on undocumented workers by Washington. The House in December rejected calls for a guest-worker program and instead approved a bill that would stiffen penalties on illegal immigrants, force businesses to run the names of each employee through federal databases to prove their legality, deploy more border agents and unmanned aerial vehicles to the nation's frontiers and build massive walls along sections of the U.S.-Mexican border.
At least 14,000 students stormed out of schools in Southern California and elsewhere yesterday, waving flags and chanting to protest congressional actions. About 100 demonstrators, including members of the clergy, appeared at the Capitol yesterday in handcuffs to object to provisions in the House bill that would make illegal immigrants into felons and criminalize humanitarian groups that feed and house them. More than a half-million marchers protested in Los Angeles on Saturday, following protests in Phoenix, Milwaukee and Philadelphia.
"The immigration debate should be conducted in a civil and dignified way," Bush said. "No one should play on people's fears, or try to pit neighbors against each other."
A confrontation between the Senate and House Republicans now appears inevitable.
"We are eager, once the Senate passes this bill, to sit down and talk with them, but there are certain fundamental principles which we simply cannot compromise on," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who cosponsored the bill that passed the Judiciary Committee largely intact last night. "It has to be a comprehensive approach. As we all know, just building walls and hiring more border patrols are not the answers to our immigration problem."
Specter, the committee chairman, had tried for weeks to find a middle ground between senators advocating a generous guest-worker program and those categorically rejecting amnesty for illegal immigrants. In the end, that search for a compromise failed because advocates of the guest-worker program had more than enough votes to overcome conservative opposition.
The panel voted to accept a bill largely patterned on the measure sponsored by Kennedy and McCain. Specter and Republican Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.), Sam Brownback (Kan.) and Mike DeWine (Ohio) joined the committee's Democrats to win passage.
The panel's bill would allow the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in this country to apply for a work visa after paying back taxes and a penalty. The first three-year visa could be renewed for three more years. After four years, visa holders could apply for green cards and begin moving toward citizenship. An additional 400,000 such visas would be offered each year to workers seeking to enter the country.
Senators also accepted a proposal by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that would offer 1.5 million illegal farmworkers a "blue card" visa that would legalize their status. The committee also accepted a provision by Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) that would shield humanitarian organizations from prosecution for providing more than simple emergency aid to illegal immigrants, rejecting an amendment by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) to require humanitarian groups providing food, medical aid and advice to illegal immigrants to register with the Department of Homeland Security.
Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) protested that the Feinstein proposal was more focused on offering illegal immigrants a path to citizenship than meeting the labor demands of agriculture. Cornyn suggested the Judiciary Committee bill was moving toward creating a caste of second-class workers.
But Cornyn may have summed up Senate fears when he referred to energized voters protesting what they see as amnesty for people who violated the nation's laws and made a mockery of its borders.
"The American people are thinking, 'Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me,' " he said. "The only way we can get the confidence of the American people is to convince them we are absolutely serious about border security and law enforcement."