By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 26, 2006
The Senate yesterday approved legislation that would trigger the biggest changes to U.S. immigration policy in decades, by strengthening border security, establishing a guest-worker program, and providing the means for millions of illegal immigrants to stay in the country and possibly become citizens.
The product of a tenuous bipartisan coalition that faced tough conservative opposition, the measure calls for 370 miles of triple-layer fencing along the Mexican border, a complicated three-tiered system for determining who can stay and who must leave the country, and more jail cells for those awaiting deportation. It would declare English the country's national language, a gesture that many advocates found insulting but accepted in hopes of helping millions of undocumented workers achieve legal status.
But even as the Senate approved the bill 62 to 36, the measure's backers acknowledged that it faces formidable opposition in the House, whose political dynamics differ markedly from the Senate's. Numerous House members insist that Congress do nothing about legalizing immigrants until illegal border crossings are dramatically reduced.
Democrats and Republicans alike said a House-Senate accord will be nearly impossible without the vigorous involvement of President Bush, who favors an approach similar to the Senate's. The White House has already begun lobbying efforts, but it faces resistance from more than 200 House Republicans seeking reelection this fall, many in districts where the sentiment against illegal immigrants runs high.
"This is the most far-reaching immigration reform in our history," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a leader of the Senate effort, said of the bill's passage. "It is a comprehensive and realistic attempt to solve the real-world problems that have festered for too long in our broken immigration system."
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Kennedy's partner in the effort, said more than 11 million illegal immigrants "harvest our crops, tend our gardens, work in our restaurants and clean our houses" and added: "Some Americans believe we must find all these millions, round them up and send them back to the countries they came from. I don't know how you do that. And I don't know why you would want to."
But opponents called the bill fundamentally flawed and predicted that it will be completely rewritten by a House-Senate conference committee, which will try next month to craft a compromise version acceptable to both chambers.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) called the measure "a bad bill" that "puts more emphasis on amnesty than on border security."
The House in December passed a bill that dealt only with border and workplace enforcement. It would make illegal presence in the country a felony.
After mass demonstrations by immigrants in several cities and complaints by Roman Catholic officials -- plus Bush's recent televised speech calling for a comprehensive approach that would include pathways to legal status for undocumented aliens -- House GOP leaders signaled a willingness to modify their bill. But they said the Senate bill goes too far and would amount to "amnesty," a term that many dispute, for millions of foreigners who broke the law and jumped ahead of would-be immigrants waiting for legal entry.
A possible compromise, some lawmakers said, might start with tighter border security and then -- if there is measurable evidence the crackdown is working -- proceed to a mechanism for some illegal immigrants to achieve legal status. But lawmakers said it is far from clear whether such a plan would appeal to enough House Republicans, and enough Senate Democrats, to win passage in either chamber.
Further complicating matters is Speaker J. Dennis Hastert's policy of allowing votes on major issues only if most of the House's 231 Republicans back them. Theoretically, a compromise immigration bill could be supported by most of the House's Democrats and nearly half of its Republicans -- making up a clear majority in the 435-seat chamber -- only to be thwarted by Hastert's dictum.
If the Senate had embraced the same policy, the bill would have died. Twenty-three Republicans, 38 Democrats and one independent voted for the immigration bill; 32 Republicans and four Democrats voted against it. Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.) and John W. Warner (R-Va.) voted for the bill. Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) voted against it.
The Senate bill calls for 1,000 new Border Patrol agents and thousands of National Guard troops to support them, plus 500 miles of vehicle barriers on the Mexican border. Several such provisions, added during two weeks of debate, were designed to appease Senate conservatives who threatened to kill the entire bill. But senators repeatedly rejected conservatives' bids to strip or weaken the provisions allowing legal status for undocumented immigrants.
The Senate bill would provide 200,000 new temporary guest-worker visas a year, while creating a separate guest-worker program for immigrant farm laborers. Its key compromise would divide the nation's estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants into three groups.
Those here five years or longer would be allowed to stay and apply for citizenship, provided they pay back taxes, learn English and have no serious criminal records. Those here two to five years would eventually have to return to another country and apply for a green card, which could allow their immediate return. The roughly 2 million immigrants who have been in the United States illegally for less than two years would be ordered home and be subject to deportation. Illegal immigrants convicted of a felony or three misdemeanors would be deported no matter how long they have been in the United States.
Critics on the left and right call the bill -- and especially its three-tiered formulation -- unworkable. The notion of apprehending and deporting 2 million illegal immigrants who have been in the United States less than two years defies logic, some say. They add that the task would be six times as great under the House proposal to empty the nation of all illegal immigrants.
Immigrants who have lived largely underground for more than five years might have trouble proving their length of stay, advocacy groups say, while those who arrived less than five years ago might try to convince officials that they have been here longer. The bill would obligate immigrants to prove their length of residency, and fraudulent claims would be a crime.
Those claiming five years of residency or more would have to prove they were employed for at least three years to qualify for a citizenship application.