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Backers of Immigration Bill More Optimistic
Lawmakers Cite Sense of Urgency

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 4, 2007

After a week at home with their constituents, the Senate architects of a delicate immigration compromise are increasingly convinced that they will hold together this week to pass an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws, with momentum building behind one unifying theme: Today's immigration system is too broken to go unaddressed.

Congress's week-long Memorial Day recess was expected to leave the bill in tatters. But with a week of action set to begin today, the legislation's champions say they believe that the voices of opposition, especially from conservatives, represent a small segment of public opinion. Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who led negotiations on the bill for his party, said the flood of angry calls and protests that greeted the deal two weeks ago has since receded every day.

"You just have to recognize you will get 300 calls, you'll get conflicts at town hall meetings -- all of them negative," said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who consulted with Kyl and hopes to carry a similar deal through the House in July. "The last few days have really turned things around."

Public opinion polls seem to support Kyl's contention that Americans are far more open to the deal than the voices of opposition would indicate. In a Washington Post-ABC News poll released today, 52 percent of Americans said they would support a program giving illegal immigrants the right to stay and work in the United States if they pay a fine and meet other requirements. Opposition to that proposal was 44 percent.

So far, the dozen senators who cut the deal have been able to hold their compromise together. They have beaten back amendments that the group deemed to be coalition-killers, such as one to strike the bill's temporary-worker program and another to remove its provisions to legalize the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.

This week's amendments are more subtle, and therefore, more threatening to the coalition.

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) will push to make the Department of Homeland Security consider more of the family-based immigration applications that have already been filed, adding 833,000 immigrants. Kyl said he will withdraw his support for the bill if the amendment passes.

He also said he will walk away if Menendez and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) win passage of an amendment that would more than double the number of green cards available under the bill for the parents of U.S. citizens. Kyl said conservatives believe today's family unification system is being misused by illegal immigrants, whose U.S.-born children are citizens.

Such amendments will be difficult to resist for the compromise's chief Democratic architect, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.), who helped create the family unification system in 1965 and whom conservatives are now counting on to help dismantle it.

Republicans in the coalition will be expected to oppose amendments that put them in equally difficult positions. One, sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), would expand the list of crimes making illegal immigrants ineligible for legalization. Cornyn has emphasized infractions such as gang activity and "aggravated felonies."

Democrats say the list would virtually wipe out the legalization program by barring undocumented workers who ignored deportation orders, overstayed their visas or otherwise evaded immigration authorities.

In addition, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) would like to prohibit illegal immigrants who are legalized under the law from obtaining the earned-income tax credit to bolster low-income work.

For Republicans in the coalition, opposing such amendments will only increase the pressure they are facing at home. Over the break, Sens. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) were booed at their state party conventions. And President Bush's attempt to give Republicans political cover by praising the deal may have backfired. Republican opponents in the House now call the proposal the "Kennedy-Bush Amnesty" bill.

"I just know that we've got a tough week ahead of us," Kyl said.

But Kyl and several immigration lobbyists also point to a different dynamic. The bill's authors, as well as advocates of comprehensive immigration legislation, have been arguing that flawed as it is, the measure must go forward legislatively and eventually it will be fixed.

That dynamic is driven by certain realities: a two-year backlog of legal immigration applications, a workforce in the United States that is as much as 5 percent illegal, and a growing patchwork of conflicting state and local immigration ordinances that threaten to paralyze business.

"The glue that is keeping this process going is the absolute agreement by all the disparate groups that the current system is absolutely dysfunctional," said Bruce Josten, chief lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

But as it moves forward, the deal has taken on a life of its own. Senators from both parties have already taken political hits over their stands on the bill and on amendments to it. Even if advocacy groups withdraw their support, politicians will be loath to come out of the fight empty-handed.

If he pulls his support for the bill over a "killer" amendment, Kyl said, he will be accused of succumbing to right-wing threats, and he is not sure he can persuade enough colleagues to bolt with him. Brent Wilkes, national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said his group is in the same position, saying it would bring the bill down if the Senate does not restore the family reunification system and give temporary workers a chance to appeal for citizenship. But such threats may carry no weight.

"We've been saying, 'Go forward, go forward, keep the process running' for so long, it's not realistic to think we can stop this after we've already made people take such difficult votes," Wilkes said. "I don't know how we got into the box that we've gotten into, but I don't see how we can find a winning hand."

Polling Director Jon Cohen and polling analyst Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.

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