What's left out of immigration debate

Amendments excluded from the Senate bill may yet alter the course of reform efforts.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In a bid to complete work on a historic immigration-reform bill this week, Senate leaders agreed to limit debate to 26 amendments – and no more.

But the dozens of amendments blocked from the Senate floor could yet play a role in the outcome of this momentous debate. That's because their omission may alter how Republicans in the other chamber of Congress – the House of Representatives – regard the bill when it's their turn to take up the issue. It may also affect how talk radio, bloggers, and the American public come to see it.

The excluded amendments range from those that would revise mechanisms for enforcing immigration law to those that challenge the bill's essential fairness.

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"It's a rigged process," says Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina. "It undermines minority rights in the Senate."

In a procedural standoff at time of writing, senators who have been refused the right to offer amendments threatened to derail the process.

"We've been told by the master crafters of this bill that it's a delicate compromise that can't allow our amendments to be debated," says Sen. David Vitter (R) of Louisiana. "At the same time, these crafters of the compromise are changing their bill every half an hour.... That's unfair."

In response, majority leader Harry Reid said: "We've had 21 days of Senate debate since 2006. We've really worked this thing hard. This is a bill that people should fully understand."

Despite such concerns, the Senate on Tuesday voted 64 to 35 to resume debate on immigration reform.

Distaste for the process

"It's a constricted and constrained procedure, which I don't like," Sen. Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania said Wednesday as the Senate resumed work on the bill. Still, he says, the unusual move to limit senators' rights to offer amendments was needed to get to a vote. "It's going to be tough, but we're going to see the will of the Senate worked one way or another," he added.

In a sharp response to the Senate move, the House Republican caucus on Tuesday voted 114 to 23 on a resolution to disapprove of the Senate bill.

Many amendments blocked from consideration deal with enhancing enforcement and with tougher standards for eligibility for "Z visas," which give a path to citizenship for many of the 12 million people currently in the United States illegally.

• Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R) of North Carolina wants an amendment making immigrants illegible for "Z visa" status if they have been convicted of drunken driving. The amendment is needed because of the number of fatal auto accidents involving illegal immigrants, she says.

• Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa proposes requiring "Z visa" holders to pass a naturalization exam and pay fines up front. Otherwise, he says, there is no requirement to learn English and American civics until 12 years after obtaining a "Z visa."

• Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas wants to bar undocumented criminals currently in detention or removal proceedings from applying for a "Z visa." .

• Sen. Wayne Allard (R) of Colorado wants to require applicants for "Z visas" to disclose all names and Social Security numbers they have used in the past to obtain employment in the US. Such disclosure would be a condition of their legalization. [Editor's note: The original version misidentified the state that Allard represents.]

• Sen. John Ensign (R) of Nevada wants a provision that makes sure "Z visa" holders are not eligible for welfare benefits sooner than are immigrants who came to the US legally. The bill as currently written, he says, gives "Z visa" holders a three-year edge over other immigrants.

• Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama would move the qualification date for "Z visa" applicants back to May 1, 2005, to make sure that those who are in the US illegally don't have an advantage over those who applied to come legally.

Democrats are unhappy, too

Some Democrats say they wanted a fuller debate on enforcement aspects of the bill.

"Until you have the border secure, you cannot deal with the 12 million here without encouraging others to come across," says Sen. Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska, who voted to proceed with the bill this week but warns that could be his last vote for the bill.

Adds Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) of Missouri: "Until our country gets serious about enforcement against employers, all the laws we pass won't make a difference." She says she'll vote against the bill for this reason. If the Justice Department would start handing out three-month jail sentences to employers who hire undocumented workers, "that will have more impact than this bill," she adds.

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