Immigration bill stalls amid calls for 'enforcement first'
The reform measure failed a key Senate vote Thursday. Its foes say the pressing need is to enforce existing laws – even if it makes life harder for illegal immigrants.
(Page 2 of 2)
What most concerned populist Democrats was a new guest-worker program, which they said would undermine prospects for American workers. Some freshmen conservatives, who campaigned on the immigration issue, also needed convincing that Washington was serious about enforcement of immigration laws.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Over weeks of debate, the bill's opponents hammered on enforcement. Mr. Bush added $4.4 billion to the package for that purpose, but critics said it wasn't enough. "We do need an investment in border security. If I had my way, I'd have a bill that just did that," said Sen. Jon Tester (D) of Montana, who voted against ending debate on the bill.
Public opinion, too, had been running against the legislation. When asked specifically about the Senate bill, only 33 percent of Americans said they favored it, according to a poll released June 7 by Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Forty-one percent said they opposed it, and 26 percent didn't know.
But the Pew poll also showed majority support for a key element of the bill: providing a way for illegal immigrants in the US to attain citizenship, if they pass background checks, pay fines, and hold jobs.
After the vote, Republican supporters of the bill and two cabinet secretaries, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, expressed disappointment with the outcome but said the nation's laws would be enforced.
"I have a job to do to enforce the laws, and I will enforce the laws that we have," said Mr. Chertoff. That means ensuring that there are 18,300 border patrol agents, 370 miles of border fence, and pursuit of probes against employers – but the extra $4.4 billion Bush agreed to add for border security went down with the bill.
In Arizona, where more illegal immigrants cross the border each year than in any other state, voter sentiment has become stridently pro-enforcement, and there is widespread support for officials who share that view.
Joe Arpaio, sheriff of Arizona's Maricopa County, is one of the most aggressive enforcers of laws on the books. More than 100 of his deputies have been trained by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement to arrest illegal immigrants under federal law, and when the current class graduates, he will have 162. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled the sherriff's last name.]
But he'd like go further. "If we start arresting [illegal immigrants] as they come across, put them in jail, the incentive for coming across will not be there," he says. "You cannot work from behind bars and send money to loved ones in Mexico.... Put them in jail, and I know it will reduce the number coming across immediately."
As for all the illegal immigrants already living in the US, Sheriff Arpaio advocates giving them six months to leave the country. "If they don't want to leave, then they can go to jail. It can be done. If you broke it down state by state, it could be done."
Arizonans in November approved four ballot measures that will make life more difficult for illegal immigrants in the state. Then, this week the legislature sent to the governor a bill that would levy the stiffest sanctions in the nation on employers who hire illegal immigrants. She is expected to say Monday whether she'll sign it.
FAIR, a national membership organization, is "absolutely for attrition" through enforcement, says its spokesman, Mr. Mehlman.
"We have to be realistic," he says. "The 12 million ... or however many [illegal immigrants] are here didn't come yesterday, and they're not going home tomorrow. If we make it clear to employers we're going to be out there looking for them, if we start to cut off nonessential benefits [to undocumented migrants], they'll realize it's not worth sticking around."
States and local governments have been passing immigration-control laws of their own "because the federal government's neglect has become their problem," Melman says. States dealing with an influx of immigrants are the ones who pick up the costs of integration and any public services illegal immigrants use, such as education and healthcare, he says.