Splits Over Immigration Reform On Display From Coast to Coast

By Shailagh Murray and Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 6, 2006

PHILADELPHIA, July 5 -- House and Senate Republicans sparred over immigration in hearings on opposite coasts Wednesday, holding firm to their starkly different viewpoints on what has become one of the most intractable and divisive issues to confront the GOP in years.

Here in the City of Brotherly Love, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) called witnesses including New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and a landscaper to testify to the growing economic necessity of immigrant labor and the potential consequences if that demand is ignored. Bloomberg said his city's economy "would collapse" if all illegal immigrants were deported.

In San Diego, meanwhile, House members gathered at a U.S. Border Patrol station, where Republicans called for a 700-mile fence and thousands of new federal agents along the border with Mexico, and prison and "hard labor" for illegal immigrants who commit serious crimes. Democrats accused Republicans of trying to divert attention from the party's struggle to find consensus on immigration even though Republicans control the House, Senate and White House.

President Bush, who prefers the Senate's more comprehensive approach, staged his own immigration event, showing up at a Dunkin' Donuts in Alexandria owned by two Iranian American brothers to reiterate his call for a guest-worker program.

"If you talk to employer[s] such as these folks, they'll tell you they need workers," Bush said. "And people are willing to do the work that others aren't willing to do, but we want to make sure there's a legal way to do it."

The House-passed bill deals only with tighter border controls and deportation standards, along with tougher enforcement of employment rules. The Senate package includes similar provisions but would create a pathway for many of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants to become citizens. It calls for a temporary-worker program that would provide legal U.S. status for as much as six years.

Bush, like Specter and his Senate Republican and Democratic allies, wants a bill that acknowledges the economic forces that entice foreigners to sneak across the border or overstay their visas. Illegal immigration is an issue that Bush came to know well as Texas governor, and he has spoken of tackling it since his first White House campaign.

But some advocates are disappointed that Bush has not taken a more active role in trying to weaken the House Republicans' resolve, which has intensified as the midterm elections near and conservatives try to rally their voting base.

In recent weeks, the White House and Senate Republicans have indicated a willingness to tackle border security first, but only if the action later triggers some or all of the Senate bill's residency-related provisions. House GOP leaders have dismissed such features as the guest-worker program as an unacceptable "amnesty" for lawbreakers. They were the first to call for field hearings as a means of showcasing popular support for their approach while also delaying negotiations with senators on a final bill.

In Philadelphia, Specter called on Bush to "provide the leadership to bring the House and Senate together," as well as to engage in the "nuts and bolts" of consensus-building between the warring GOP factions.

Specter said the Senate hearings -- which he said will continue through the August recess -- are an attempt to broaden the debate beyond border-related issues. "It's easy to talk about enforcement," Specter said, referring to House Republicans. "But how do you run an economy without immigrant workers?"

Ronald Bird, a Department of Labor economist, told the Senate panel that "immigrants are a significant and growing component," constituting nearly 15 percent of the U.S. labor force and accounting for about 40 percent of labor force growth between 2002 and 2005.

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