Immigrant Measure Survives Challenges

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 7, 2007

The plan to overhaul the nation's immigration system survived its most serious challenges yesterday, when the Senate defeated amendments to disqualify hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants from legalization and to extend visas to hundreds of thousands more relatives of U.S. citizens and green-card holders.

But just after midnight, the Senate approved by a single vote an amendment to shut down the bill's proposed guest-worker program after five years. The 49 to 48 vote, coming just days after the Senate cut the size of the guest-worker program in half, could upset the delicate bipartisan balance behind the deal.

Before that early-morning vote, the fragile coalition behind the "grand bargain" appeared to be holding together as the legislation nears final passage -- but barely.

Still, the bill took a decidedly conservative turn last night with the adoption of amendments that would at once declare English the national language and designate English the "common language" of the United States. The Senate also blocked the bill's newly legalized undocumented workers from receiving the earned-income tax credit, while denying legalized undocumented workers any Social Security benefits they may have earned after overstaying their visa.

Senators also undid a provision that would keep information from visa applications confidential.

But those changes were not immediately hailed as deal-breakers. The vote to sunset the guest-worker program came so late that its impact was not clear. The known challenges to the bargain were defeated, however. One such proposal, by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), would have blocked legalization for a broad array of legal infractions, including scrapes with immigration courts.

Another, by Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), would have included more recent applicants to the pool of backlogged family-based applications for green cards that must be cleared under the bill. The Menendez-Hagel amendment would have granted as many as 833,000 more visas than the bill now offers. Still another, offered by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), would have expedited visas for the spouses and minor children of legal permanent residents, or green card holders.

The Senate will vote as early as tonight on whether to cut off debate on the bill and move to a final vote, possibly tomorrow night. For now, the bipartisan coalition appears to have the muscle to push it through.

"It's holding fast," said Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), one of the chief architects of the legislation, which would couple a crackdown on future illegal immigration with generous new paths for illegal immigrants and legal migrants to stay and work in the country. "It's as good as we could hope for right now."

But the coalition shows signs of fraying. Georgia's senators, Republicans Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss, had helped forge the immigration deal, but they bolted from the coalition to back Cornyn's amendment. Chambliss, who was booed recently at his state's Republican convention, hinted that he could oppose the bill on its final vote.

"I'm committed to the concepts" of the agreement, he said. "To say I support the bill, I've never said that."

Republican leaders of the coalition had pledged to withdraw from the deal if the family-unification amendments had passed, but in the end they defeated them only through procedural moves that forced the measures' proponents to muster 60 votes. The 53 to 44 vote on the Menendez-Hagel measure fell short of that threshold. Clinton's amendment garnered only 44 votes. But Menendez's majority vote could strengthen the hand of immigration advocates if the House and Senate ever sit down to work out a final bill.

Conservative opponents vowed yesterday that will never happen. Two conservative pressure groups unveiled television and radio advertisements aimed at peeling Republicans from the coalition. And Senate GOP and Democratic leaders remained locked in a standoff over the demand of Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) that debate be cut off tonight. "Enthusiasm is waning," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), one of the bill's most ardent foes.

An analysis by the Congressional Budget Office -- Congress's influential scorekeeper -- complicated the calculations even further yesterday.

The CBO concluded that the cost of the bill in immigration-law enforcement, border controls and federal benefits to immigrants would be more than offset by tax payments -- especially Social Security tax payments -- from newly legalized workers. White House officials latched on to that finding as they continued to seek GOP support for the bill.

But the CBO also raised questions about whether the legislation would work to bring undocumented workers out of the shadows and to stem the flow of illegal immigrants. A proposed guest-worker program would bring hundreds of thousands of migrants who would stay illegally once their visas expired, the CBO said.

Of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants now in the country, nearly a third -- 3.6 million -- would probably not attain legal status under the bill, the analysis said. And, it said, even if the bill's law enforcement and employee-verification provisions are implemented, the annual flow of illegal immigrants into the country would be reduced by only a quarter.

Those findings were troubling both to conservatives pushing a tougher crackdown on illegal immigration and to pro-immigration groups wanting a more generous bill. Brent Wilkes, national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, is concerned that if the bill does not work to stem illegal immigration and provide lawful work, opponents will have far more political ammunition for a crackdown in the future.

"They'll wait 10 to 15 years until we have another 12 million undocumented workers. Then they'll complain like heck," Wilkes said. "That's why we're trying to put out the word. The way this bill is currently configured, it's not going to work."

Groups against illegal immigration unveiled separate advertising campaigns to ratchet up the pressure, especially on Republicans such as Isakson and Chambliss, but also on freshman Sen. James Webb (D-Va.).'s cable advertisement features three elderly women, supposedly on the border with Mexico, shouting "Where's the fence?" as three Mexican caricatures scurry across a road. The Minuteman Civil Defense Corps unveiled a radio ad urging opponents of the bill to contact their senators.

"As far as beating this bill, that's going to be up to the American people," said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who helped unveil the "Where's The Fence" ad.

Pro-immigrant groups were also growing nervous. The defeat of the family-unification amendments may have preserved the coalition, but they could also raise pressure on some Democrats to vote against the bill. Under the current deal, the Department of Homeland Security would have to quickly clear family-based immigration applications that were filed before May 2005. Menendez had hoped to push that deadline up to January 2007, effectively securing family-unification visas for 833,000 more families. Clinton had hoped to extend to green-card holders the same preference the bill gives to U.S. citizens for expedited family-unification visas.

Their defeat left immigration rights activists convinced that the Senate will pass the bill largely intact -- without the improvements they wanted but with changes sought by conservatives.

"It just feels like we've been outmaneuvered here," Wilkes lamented.

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