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.

The demise of the Senate immigration-reform bill on Thursday was, on the face of it, a matter of simple math: too few senators willing to move the controversial legislation to a final vote.

But the bill's bitter end has a deeper meaning. What nixed it was in large part a vocal, frustrated contingent of Americans with a vision for how US immigration reform should look – and this compromise legislation was not it.

"I don't think the message can be any clearer. The American people want us to start with enforcement at the border and at the workplace," said Sen. David Vitter (R) of Louisiana.

The bill's failure, 46 to 53, came despite the fact that two cabinet secretaries lobbied senators at the door as they prepared to vote on President Bush's top domestic priority. Fifteen Democrats and an Independent joined 37 Republicans to derail the bill.

"Enforcement first," or even "enforcement only," is how opponents of the Senate bill describe their alternative to immigration reform. That is, enforce the laws already on the books, and life in the US will become uncomfortable enough that many of the 12 million illegal immigrants now here will leave of their own volition. Beef up the border, and fewer will make it into the US in the first place.

"What we'd like to see is [government officials] enforce the laws that currently exist, which they have never done," says Ira Mehlman of The Federation of American Immigration Reform (FAIR) in Washington. "Most Americans fundamentally find objectionable that to even consider enforcing our laws we have to first make a deal with the people who break the laws."

Russell Pearce, a state lawmaker in Arizona and sponsor of a bill there to sanction employers who hire undocumented workers, calls this approach "attrition by enforcement." "One stop at a time [of a suspected illegal immigrant]. One employer at a time. Shut down the rides, turn down the lights, the crowd goes home," says Mr. Pearce.

Whether this approach could be effective, and at what cost in terms of both dollars and human misery, is hotly debated. Some insist it would not, in fact, empty America of illegal immigrants, but would only drive those here deeper underground, increasing the likelihood that they would be exploited and abused.

Critics of "enforcement only," in fact, say some laws on the books today are unenforceable. "To be able to enforce the law, we must have an enforceable law," Sen. Jon Kyl (R) of Arizona, an architect of the downed bill, had argued before Thursday's vote. He cited the law governing workplace enforcement as not providing a viable system. "If you don't have a good law to enforce, you can't work that strategy" of attrition.

Supporters of the "grand bargain" on immigration had said that if the Senate rejected this key procedural vote, immigration reform would be dead until new elections. But after the vote, Senate majority leader Harry Reid predicted: "It will come back. It's only a question of when. We're only six months into this Congress."

For the moment, though, faith in "enforcement first" – coupled with a Senate amendment process that angered some fence-sitting lawmakers – proved too potent for the forces of compromise to overcome. By the time the bill got through a bruising floor debate, it had made foes in both parties. While a core of GOP conservatives led the fight that toppled the bill, opposition was severe among Democrats, too.

What most riled conservative Republicans – and their fired-up constituents – was the proposed law's path to citizenship for people now in the US illegally. It would be 1986 all over again, they said, referring to the most recent US immigration-reform legislation. Those who had broken immigration laws would get to stay, and politicians in Washington would still not enforce their own immigration laws, they argued.

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.

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.

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