With a crucial vote looming, supporters of the Senate's immigration-reform bill are redoubling efforts to convince the public – and 15 of their Senate colleagues – that the US will enforce the law.
President Bush is pledging $4.4 billion in immediate, must-spend funding to pay for more border patrol agents, fencing, and cameras.
"As the Senate takes up this critical bill, I understand that many Americans have concerns about immigration reform, especially about the federal government's ability to secure the border," he said in his weekly radio address Saturday.
On Friday, top GOP advocates of the bill proposed a 10-point enforcement amendment, which they say will be the first offered on the floor, if the Senate agrees Tuesday to take up a revised bill.
During a previous two weeks of floor debate – and amid ongoing angry phone calls, e-mail, and attack ads – supporters of a "grand bargain" on immigration took a drubbing from critics who are saying, "It's 1986 all over again."
That 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act "was supposed to solve our illegal immigration problem once and for all. Instead, it quadrupled it," said Sen. David Vitter (R) of Louisiana, at a press briefing on Thursday.
After the bill fell 15 votes short on a key procedural vote June 7, Senate majority leader Harry Reid pulled it. He challenged its supporters to come up with more GOP votes and urged Mr. Bush to get more involved.
But moves to limit the amendments that would be allowed on the Senate floor in a renewed immigration debate angered some conservatives, who said that key concerns that deserved a hearing, especially enforcement issues, were being stifled.
In recent days, several senators who once supported the notion of a new guest-worker program and a path to citizenship for some 12 million people now in the country illegally, said they could no longer support the bill mainly over concerns that it cannot be adequately enforced.
Existing law already provides for the construction of 700 miles of fencing, 23,000 new border patrol agents by 2010, enforcement of employer sanctions, and completion of a biometric exit and entry system by 2005. Yet none of these promises were kept, critics say.
"It's one thing to take the government at its word in 1986 and then to see what they're not able to do and not willing to do, but it's another thing when we do the exact same thing again on a much bigger scale," says Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina on Thursday.
One example of a clearly unworkable feature of the proposed law, according to Senator DeMint, is the 24-hour limit for background checks on those currently in the country illegally who are seeking probationary status. "If they can't do the background check in 24 hours, you get your probationary status anyway," he said.
On Friday, GOP supporters of the bill took up 10 such leading criticisms of border enforcement in their new amendment. They include:
•A requirement to complete appropriate background checks before undocumented immigrants are given probationary status to stay in the country.
•Hiring at least 10,000 additional auditors, specialists, and other personnel to investigate fraud, remove illegal immigrants, and enforce employer sanctions.
•Barring from entry into the US gang members, child sex offenders, and those who pose health and criminal risks.
•Tracking those who remain in the US after their visas have expired. It includes raising the bond for each visiting family member from $1,000 to $2,500.
•Enforcing the law against visa overstayers, detaining them until they are deported, and permanently barring them from future admission to the US.
"It's our intention to get very specific about potential problems," says Sen. Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona, the lead GOP negotiator on the bill.
"The 24-hour requirement for probationary status is a bogus argument, because the government has never waived its right to prosecute criminal offenses," he said in a briefing with reporters Friday. But since it's become such a flash point in the media, "it's been eliminated," he said.
Also, those overstaying their visas will be "detained, deported, and permanently barred from the country," he said. "There has been such an outcry in the country to see that the laws are enforced that the Senate has to show we are serious about it," he added.
But GOP critics say they can't assess whether the proposals will be effective without seeing more detail on the amendments. "I cannot accept a one or two sentence summary of a legislative provision that promises enforcement. We must see the full language to determine if it will actually work," said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama, in an e-mail.
"We have seen that legislative provisions, if not funded or carried out, are worthless," he added, citing a 1996 law mandating that a new entry and exit border system be fully up and running by 2005. "It is not close to a reality today. The history of immigration law is that political gestures towards enforcement are passed with great fanfare but never fully funded to actually work."
Some outside groups opposing features of the proposed law welcomed moves to step up border security. "Still, it's astounding that it took a month of political convulsions to get such an obvious, common-sense amendment put forward," says Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies.