A GOP faceoff over illegal immigration
Immigration reform splits the party so deeply it could stall legislation this year.
WASHINGTON — Senate majority leader Bill Frist and GOP Sen. Sam Brownback stood together on trade, war, judges, guns, energy, abortion, and war, but they are bookends in this week's debate on "earned" amnesty for illegal aliens - the toughest issue before the Senate this year.
They illustrate the rift that runs through both parties, but especially the GOP, which controls both the House and Senate. That rift yawns so large that it could keep Congress from passing any immigration legislation this year.
Senator Frist, a prospect for a presidential run in 2008, wants a "virtual barrier" to secure borders first. It's about what it means to be a nation, he says: "A nation that can't secure its borders can't secure its destiny or administer its laws."
Senator Brownback, also a prospect for 2008, backs border security, but says he also wants a way to get 11 million undocumented people into a legalized status. It's about human dignity, he says: "One of the key measures in any society is what you do for the so-called least of these."
Polls show a strong majority of Republican voters oppose amnesty for those in the country illegally, but business groups, a core GOP constituency, want to assure a supply of low-wage workers for agriculture, construction, restaurant, and other services.
For Frist, who stumbled badly over his handling of the Terri Schiavo debacle a year ago, it's a chance to lead his party through a political mine field. "I'm here to solve problems, not stand around," he said in a statement on the floor of the Senate early Monday afternoon.
Frist had given the Senate Judiciary Committee an ultimatum: Produce a bill by end-of-day Monday, or the Senate would take up his own immigration reform plan. Brownback is one of four Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, including chairman Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania, to side with Democrats in a bid for comprehensive immigration reform this session of Congress.
The Judiciary Committee's bill opens a path to citizenship for at least 11 million people living in the United States illegally. It allows those who were in the US before 2004 to get a temporary work visa, if they pay a $1,000 fine and clear a criminal background check. After six years, they would be eligible for permanent legal residence, if they learn English and pay back taxes and another $1,000 fine.
Frist's alternative, still in play, focuses exclusively on border security. That means more boots on the borders, unmanned aerial vehicles, cameras, sensors, and "a virtual barrier to cover every mile of our 1,950-mile long border with Mexico." (The House bill also includes a 700-mile wall along the southern border.)
The Frist bill also requires employers to verify the legal status of their workers, using a federal electronic database. Those employers engaging in a pattern of hiring illegal workers would face up to six months in jail. Those living in the country illegally are guilty of a misdemeanor; under the House bill, it's a felony.
Right up until the last vote late Monday afternoon, prospects for completing the complex bill looked unlikely. In the end, committee chairman Specter, as well as GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Mike DeWine of Ohio, and Brownback of Kansas lined up with all eight Democrats on the panel to complete a bill. The 12-to-6 vote electrified pro-immigration groups, who jammed the back of the Judiciary panel's hearing room.
"I'm guessing we'll get 40 Democrats and 20 to 30 Republicans who will vote for comprehensive reform," says Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a Washington advocacy group. "The idea is to get the best possible product out of the Senate, either as a prelude to a conference that goes the Senate's way - or a train wreck," he adds.
About six months ago, Mr. Sharry says he asked Brownback why, as a potential presidential candidate, he would be willing to risk alienating conservative voters, especially in Iowa, an early caucus state. "He told us, 'It's in the Bible.' He has pages of Scripture that refer to welcoming the stranger," he says.
"In all our talking to politicians, I'd never heard that," Sharry adds.
Brownback says he doesn't recall that meeting but stands by the comment. "What makes it tough is that we want to be a nation of laws," he says. "As I talk to people across Iowa, a number of people have questioned me on the immigration system. People aren't anti-immigrant, but they don't want the laws broken."
Senators on both sides of the aisle are watching the massive mobilization of immigrants, legal and illegal, in the streets of major US cities. "There is no question that what happened out in Chicago and Michigan made a big difference," said Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, a cosponsor with Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona of immigration reform that includes a path to legalization for illegals.
Frist had been gearing up for a procedural clash with Democratic leader Harry Reid, who had threatened a filibuster. Now, he must repair rifts in his own caucus.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved Monday an immigration bill that differs markedly from one passed by the House this past December. Here are key points:
• Judiciary - Illegal immigrants in the US before 2004 may work legally for six years if they pay a $1,000 fine and have no criminal record. They become eligible for permanent residence upon paying another $1,000 fine and any back taxes and learning English.
• House - Makes illegal presence in the US a felony. Requires detention of all non-Mexican illegal immigrants arrested when entering the US and mandatory sentences for those smuggling them in.
• Judiciary - Creates a pilot guest-worker program for some 1.5 million farm workers. New immigrants may obtain temporary work visas. Both groups can earn permanent residence.
• House - Does not include a guest-worker program. Requires all employers to use a database to verify Social Security numbers of employees within six years or face civil or criminal penalties.
• Judiciary - More than doubles the number of Border Patrol agents by 2011. Authorizes a "virtual wall" of unmanned vehicles, cameras, and sensors to monitor the US-Mexico border.
• House - Requires building two-layer fences along 700 miles of the 2,000-mile border between Mexico and the US.
Source: The Associated Press