Congress' immigration collision

The Senate kept a "fragile coalition" on immigration reform alive last week. But can it survive the House?

Published May 22, 2006

WASHINGTON - First, they agreed to build a triple-layered fence on the Mexican border. Then, they reduced the number of temporary workers allowed in the United States. Finally, they declared English the national language.

With each of those votes last week, U.S. senators inched their immigration overhaul bill closer to the type of tough legislation favored by conservatives, including those in the U.S. House.

"Certainly the bill has become more conservative," said Kim Propeack of the proimmigrant National Capitol Immigration Coalition in Washington, D.C. "Some of the amendments that have passed fundamentally change who can become legal.

"It's a feeding frenzy. There is such a huge wish list out there."

But a bipartisan coalition led in part by Republican Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida managed to preserve the essence of the 600-page immigration bill through a full week of debate and amendments on the Senate floor.

The Senate's comprehensive approach to immigration still includes expanding guest worker programs and allowing many of the 12-million illegal immigrants already in the United States, including 500,000 in Florida, a path to citizenship.

"The basic structure of immigration reform didn't change. It was just symbolic things around the edges," said Tamar Jacoby, an immigration expert at the Manhattan Institute who supports the Senate bill. "Day after day, we were sitting there thinking this was the end. But we dodged a bullet."

Supporters of the Senate bill, which was favored by many proimmigrant groups, have fought off several attempts to gut portions that would provide millions of illegal immigrants a path to citizenship and hundreds of thousands of foreigners guest worker visas.

Amendments that were defeated included proposals to prohibit implementing a guest worker program until border security provisions are fully funded and operational; ban temporary workers from gaining permanent resident status; and deny Social Security benefits to legalized immigrants for work they performed while they were illegal.

Supporters of the original Senate bill lost a vote Wednesday when the Senate agreed to deny temporary workers the ability to petition for citizenship, but just a day later the Senate reversed its decision.

Under the revised Senate bill, temporary workers can seek citizenship if the federal government certifies American workers are unavailable to fill their jobs.

"It's a fragile coalition, but a coalition that is holding together," said Cecilia Munoz, vice president of the National Council of La Raza, a Latino civil rights and advocacy group. "There have been key tests to the architecture of comprehensive reform. The architecture has survived those tests."

The Senate spent last week debating about two dozen amendments to the immigration bill written by Martinez and Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Nebraska.

Debate will resume this afternoon, and the Senate expects to vote on a bill this week before Congress leaves on its Memorial Day recess.

Proimmigration groups support a sweeping amendment scheduled to come up this week that would treat all illegal immigrants the same no matter how long they have been in the United States, and allow all of them a chance to become citizens.

In December, the House passed a bill that focuses on border security and deporting illegal immigrants. It does not include any provisions for guest worker programs and provides no new avenues for immigrants to apply for citizenship.

If the Senate passes its bill - as it is expected to do - then representatives from both chambers will try to hash out their differences this summer.

Colin Hanna, president of WeNeedAFence.com, said his group planned to send a flurry of faxes to senators this week, but on Friday he said that may no longer be necessary. He said that at the beginning of last week the differences between the Senate and the House appeared so vast the two chambers wouldn't even be able to negotiate, but that changed during the Senate debate last week.

The Senate passed an amendment sponsored by Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., to build 370 miles of triple-layered fencing along the border and 500 miles of vehicle barriers in areas identified as prime entry points for illegal immigrants.

It also voted to cap the number of guest worker visas at 200,000, instead of 325,000 as the original bill specified, and to prevent immigrants with any criminal record, even misdemeanors or a history of ignoring a deportation order, from entering through guest worker programs.

The Senate also voted to make English the official language of the U.S. government and to raise the standards of the English test for those seeking citizenship.

"Sen. Sessions broke the logjam and set the Senate on a course that will be close enough to the House version," Hanna said.

But Sessions said Friday that without more significant changes to the Senate version there still won't be a compromise possible with the House.

"The Senate should be ashamed of itself," he said.

More than 70 House Republicans signed a letter saying they will never accept any plan that offers legal work and citizenship to illegal immigrants.

The Senate bill closely resembles the comprehensive approach that President Bush said last week he favors, including guest worker programs and a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies, said he still opposes the Senate bill, even with the changes, and that it will be unacceptable to the House.

"The essence of the bill hasn't changed," he said. "The bill is DOA."

Times researcher Angie Drobnic Holan contributed to this report. Anita Kumar can be reached at akumar@sptimes.com or 202 463-0576.


Highlights of the immigration bills in Congress. The Senate is still amending its version; the House voted in December:

The Senate bill

- Allows illegal immigrants who have been in the country five years or more to remain, continue working and eventually become legal permanent residents and citizens after paying fines, back taxes and learning English.

- Requires illegal immigrants in the United States between two and five years to go to a point of entry at the border and file an application to return.

- Requires those in the country less than two years to leave.

- Creates a special guest worker program for an estimated 1.5-million immigrant farm workers, who could also earn legal permanent residency.

- Provides 200,000 new temporary "guest worker" visas a year.

- Authorizes 370 miles of new triple-layered fencing plus 500 miles of vehicle barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border.n Authorizes hiring an additional 1,000 Border Patrol agents this year, for a total additional 3,000 agents this year.

- Adds an additional 14,000 Border Patrol agents by 2011 to the current force of 11,300 agents.n Authorizes additional detention facilities for apprehended illegal immigrants.

- Requires employers and subcontractors to use an electronic system within 18 months to verify new hires are legal. Increases maximum fines to employers for hiring illegal workers to $20,000 for each worker and imposes jail time for repeat offenders.

- Makes English the official language and slightly raises the standards of the English test for those seeking citizenship.

The House bill

- No provisions providing path to legal residency or citizenship for illegal immigrants. No new temporary guest worker program.

- Makes illegal presence in the country a felony and increases penalties for first-time illegal entry to the United States.

- Makes it a felony to assist, encourage, direct or induce a person to enter or attempt to enter or remain in the United States illegally.

- Beginning in six years, all employers would have to use a database to verify Social Security numbers of all employees.

- Increases maximum fines for employers of illegal workers from current $10,000 to $40,000 per violation and establishes prison sentences of up to 30 years for repeat offenders.

-  Requires building two-layer fences along 700 miles of the 2,000-mile border between Mexico and the United States.

Sources: Associated Press, Times research