Capitol Hill closes in on immigration reform

After weeks of closed-door negotiations, lawmakers say they are close to unveiling a plan for comprehensive immigration reform. Unlike last year, when the House and Senate passed vastly different bills, comparable bills are likely to emerge on both sides of the Capitol, including a guest-worker program and a path to "earned citizenship" for some 12 million people in the US illegally.

But lawmakers and aides working the issue say they will need at least 20 Republican votes in the Senate and from 40 to 80 in the House to move legislation this year. Before facing a floor fight, they want to be sure that they have crafted a deal broad enough to secure them.

Immigrant-rights groups say this is their best shot in two decades to enact reforms they've long sought. It's also a top priority of many US business groups and one of a very short list of items on which the White House and the new Democrat- controlled Congress see a basis for working together.

"We're actually very optimistic and confident that this is the year we're going to make history. The fundamentals have never been better," says Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an immigration advocacy group.

Last week, apple growers were the latest wave of business groups on Capitol Hill to lobby for immigration reform. This week, it's floral wholesalers and crop growers. Stepped up enforcement on businesses that hire illegal workers, including high-profile raids, are drawing more business groups into this year's immigration fight.

"Farm-worker shortages in the range of 30 percent resulted in crop loss and decisions to scale back operations," says Craig Regelbrugge, senior director of government relations for the American Nursery & Landscape Association and co-chair of the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition. "The concern and engagement we're seeing in the business community, broadly defined, is escalating very rapidly."

One reason is the stepped up federal enforcement of employer sanctions. In the last three years, the new Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency has significantly increased operations against employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. "We're really putting an emphasis on criminal arrests in workforce enforcement," says ICE spokesman Pat Reilly.

In fiscal year 2006, the number of arrests more than tripled – to 4,383, including 718 arrests for criminal offenses – compared with a year earlier. In 2004, there were only 845 arrests. The push continues to accelerate. Three months into this fiscal year, ICE has already made more than double the criminal arrests that were made in all of 2005.

"Criminal enforcement against an employer sends a strong message to other employers to pay attention to their hiring process," she adds. Evidence from recent operations, including one last week, shows that not only do these employers hire illegal aliens, but "it was part of their business model to hire illegal aliens."

But critics say the stepped-up enforcement is aimed more at finding votes on Capitol Hill than ferreting out wrongdoers. "The Bush administration is pursuing a spoonful of enforcement to help the amnesty go down," says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which opposes amnesty. "It is transparently an effort to provide political cover for House members to vote for an amnesty. Nobody believes that this enforcement will continue beyond the ink drying on the bill."

Both the House and Senate bills that passed in the last Congress stepped up border security, including a fence along hundreds of miles of the border with Mexico. But lawmakers were not able to agree on a guest-worker plan or whether to include a path to citizenship for those in the country illegally.

Until recently, only a handful of lawmakers were in the inner circle working on the shape of a new bill: Sens. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts and John McCain (R) of Arizona and Reps. Jeff Flake (R) of Arizona and Luis Gutierrez (D) of Illinois.

Many lawmakers, including Sen. Arlen Specter, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, complained about being left out of the process. "I asked to be part of the process, and I was rebuffed," said Sen. Sam Brownback (R) of Kansas, a presidential hopeful who backed last year's bipartisan immigration bill.

"It isn't a draft yet. When it is, others will have a chance to participate," says an aide to Senator Kennedy.

But in recent days, even key players like Senator McCain have expressed concerns that negotiations have been protracted and difficult. In recent weeks, McCain has taken a hammering on the primary trail for his support of the war in Iraq and last year's McCain-Kennedy bill, which is opposed by GOP conservatives.

In South Carolina this weekend, McCain told a rally that the US needed a temporary work program to help secure the borders but that workers would need to go back home.

Questioned on whether relations with his cosponsor were in trouble, Kennedy said last week: "We have made real progress, and if there is any difficulty, we can go back to the bill we all passed last year."

But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle say that reformers face an uphill climb to match last year's Senate vote, which passed by a vote of 62 to 36.

Several of the freshmen who helped Democrats take back the Senate campaigned against amnesty for illegal workers.

Sen. Jon Tester (D) of Montana says that he is waiting to see the new legislation but that he would have voted against the 2006 Senate bill. "I don't think the country has wanted to solve the problem, and I don't think it wants to now," he said in an interview last week. "Government needs to secure the borders first and then work on enforcing the laws that we have."

"We'll need a significant number of Republican votes, and we're going to need the president," says Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate majority leader Harry Reid.

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