Debate begins over tighter immigration

The Senate's foray into the issue began Thursday, propelled by post-9/11 worries about border security.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

As the Senate begins a high-stakes debate on immigration and border security, lawmakers agree on at least one point: Something must be done to secure America's dangerously porous borders.

They are divided, though, over whether security will be improved by bringing 11 million illegal immigrants "out of the shadows" - and whether resolving their status must be part of a border-tightening measure.

Unlike previous immigration debates in Congress, this one - the first since the 9/11 terror attacks - is colored by national security concerns. And this time, the term "amnesty," a theme of the 1986 reform law, is a nonstarter.

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"Congress has struggled ... with the immigration issue for the last 30 years," said Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, as the Senate Judiciary Committee began a markup of an immigration bill Thursday. "That all changed with 9/11.... Our national security now requires us to know who is entering and leaving the US. We can't afford to ignore illegal immigration any more," he added.

Unlike the House, the Senate is considering a range of options, including temporary worker programs, to deal with the status of illegal immigrants while it beefs up border security. That strategy puts the Senate at odds with the House, which is opposing a comprehensive approach at this time.

"If the Senate truly wants reform to become law this year, it must train its focus on what the House has and hasn't done," said Rep. Tom Tancredo (R) of Colorado, a leader in the anti-immigration movement and a prospective presidential candidate, in a statement ahead of the Senate markup.

If the Senate works outside the House parameters and includes an amnesty or guest-worker provision, it will "pass the buck for yet another year. Passing our security woes to future leaders at such a critical time would be a great tragedy, and one Americans will not forget," he said.

On Dec. 16, the House cleared a tough border-security bill that did not take up the status of immigrants already in the country illegally. The bill, which drew the support of 49 Democrats, includes a 700-mile fence along the southern border, first-ever criminal penalties for those in the US illegally, and a requirement that businesses check the immigration status of new workers via a new federal electronic database.

The Senate version of the bill, which borrows from the House bill as well as from proposals by senators, tackles immigration issues besides border security. It also proposes a new visa program to allow employers to hire foreign workers "when no willing US workers are available."

Like the House bill, the draft legislation in the Senate directs more personnel and technological assets to the nation's borders, including unmanned aerial vehicles, cameras, sensors, all-weather roads, and vehicle barriers. It does not, however, include construction of a $2.2 billion fence, a provision the House bill does have.

The Senate legislation also would commit the Department of Defense to playing a more active role in border security and would require the Department of Homeland Security to develop a comprehensive border strategy.

Both bills also require a biometric entry and exit system, including criminal penalties for those who traffic in false or fraudulent passports and immigration documents. Unlike the 1986 reform, the last major overhaul of federal immigration law, employers must take "reasonable steps to verify that employees are authorized to work." The Senate bill would require employers to clear new workers through an electronic employment-verification system, phased in over the next five years.

The most controversial aspect of the Senate proposal is a plan to create a new temporary worker visa, the H-2C. The visa is renewable for as many as six years, but requires workers to return home at the end of the authorized period.

"The committee must grapple with a realistic means of bringing out from the shadows the possible 11 million illegal aliens in the US. We are a nation of immigrants, but we are also a nation of laws," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, in a letter to colleagues last week.

Unlike a plan proposed by Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Senator Kennedy, Senator Specter's draft bill does not include a path to full citizenship for those living illegally in the US today. That's a sticking point in the Judiciary Committee, even before tough negotiations with the House.

"We can't ignore those 11 million in the hope that the problem will go away on its own," says Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas, in his opening statement at hearings on Thursday.

Immigrant advocacy groups say the new guest-worker program doesn't go far enough.

"It is neither realistic nor desirable to round up and deport 11 million people, but the Specter proposal will exclude many undocumented [people] from ever becoming part of America's future, thereby perpetuating the problem of illegality the bill must solve," said Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, in a statement.

Meeting in Washington on the eve of the Senate debate, some 300 immigrant hotel workers cheered a pep speech from Senator Kennedy before fanning out to lobby Senate offices.

"They're meeting tomorrow on amnesty," said Unite-Here president John Wilhelm, who corrected himself quickly: "I mean immigration."

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