For immigration reform to get back on track on Capitol Hill, President Bush needs to convince skeptics on both sides of the aisle that the government can be trusted to enforce the law.
The Senate's "grand bargain" on immigration fell 15 votes short in a key procedural vote Thursday night, and majority leader Harry Reid pulled the bill off the floor.
To bring it back, Senate Republicans must reduce the number of amendments they are proposing. That can be done, said Republican leaders last week. If they do, "we'll find time to get this bill out," Senator Reid said after the vote.
But behind these procedural roadblocks is a deep settled conviction by opponents both on Capitol Hill and among the general public that the federal government lacks the will to enforce America's immigration laws.
"The public has a right to ask this these questions – and to be cynical – and we have to overcome that with this legislation," says Sen. Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona, the lead Republican sponsor of the "grand bargain" on immigration reform.
The last major immigration law, in 1986, gave amnesty to illegal immigrants – and promised border enforcement and sanctions on employers who hire undocumented workers, but did not deliver. The proposed new immigration law includes measures such as an electronic employee verification system to ensure that workers are legal. "That's been lost in the press coverage and the debate on the bill," Senator Kyl says.
In a radio address responding to last week's vote, Mr. Bush acknowledged that the 1986 immigration law failed, but said that the current bill can be improved.
"I know some of you doubt that the federal government will make good on the border security and enforcement commitments in this bill," he said. "My administration is determined to learn from the mistakes of the past decades."
Unlike the 1986 law, the current bill includes a temporary worker program "to ensure that those who come here to work do so in a legal and orderly way," he said. It will give "honest employers the tools they need to ensure that they are hiring legal workers," including a tamper-resistant identity card.
"Businesses that knowingly hire illegal aliens will be punished. Workers who come here illegally will be sent home," he said. Bush will be meeting in a closed session with Senate Republicans at their caucus luncheon on Tuesday.
But opponents say that two weeks of debate and roll call votes over amendments to this bill signal deep rifts over how far Washington should go to enforce the law.
By a vote of 48 to 49, the Senate voted down an amendment by Rep. Norm Coleman (R) of Minnesota that would have allowed local law-enforcement officials to question individuals about their immigration status if they have probable cause to believe that the immigrants are not in the country legally. Nine Democrats and all but eight Republicans supported the amendment.
An amendment by Sen. David Vitter (R) of Louisiana requiring Washington to track whether visitors left the US after their visas expired also failed by a vote of 48 to 49, with 12 Democrats voting in support.
A new report by the Congressional Budget Office estimates that a half-million guest workers will overstay their visas in the next decade, if the new law is enacted. "We anticipate that many of those would remain in the US after their visas expire," the report concluded.
In another key vote, senators also voted down an amendment by Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas to exclude felons from the Z-visa program, which offers a path to legalization for some 12 million now in the country illegally. The amendment, which was rejected 46 to 51, would have excluded those who forged documents or ignored deportation orders – a provision that could have left out many undocumented workers.
Another Republican amendment requiring that information on Z-visa applications be disclosed to local law enforcement was adopted 57 to 39, but sponsors say that the risk of legal reprisals would discourage many undocumented immigrants from applying to legalize their status. They say the amendment must be "fixed" before the bill becomes a law.
That pattern of votes shows that Congress isn't yet serious about border enforcement, says Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama, a lead opponent of the bill.
Along with GOP conservatives, the 11 Democrats who helped derail the bill Thursday also voted consistently to strengthen enforcement.
"We can stop the hiring of illegal immigrants in this country if we prosecute the people who are hiring them. This administration has not been interested in enforcing the law against employers," said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) of Missouri, during the debate on Thursday.
Recent polls also signal that doubts about Washington's commitment to enforcing immigration laws is draining support for the bill. Only 16 percent of Americans believe that the Senate bill will reduce illegal immigration and enforce the border, according to a recent Rasmussen Reports national poll. A New York Times/CBS News poll released May 24 found that 69 percent of Americans say that those in the country illegally should be prosecuted and deported.
"There is a lot of distrust of Washington in general. That explains those polls that say: Do you support the Senate immigration bill? No. Do you know what's in it? No," says Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, which lobbies for immigration reform.