By MICHAEL DOYLE
January 21, 2006
Literally every week, lawmakers introduce their latest bid to reform immigration and improve border security. The names alone give their flavor.
The Reducing Immigration to a Genuinely Healthy Total Act. That's RIGHT, for short. The Secure Our Nation's Interior Act. The Enforcement First Immigration Reform Act. The Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act. And so on.
But while it's easy to write an immigration bill and give it a stern name, it's awfully hard to pass one. That will be the real challenge confronting Congress this year.
"We're probably going to end up with a series of bills - one that has border security enforcement, and one that has guest workers," Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif., predicted. "A comprehensive approach is necessary; the question is, how do you get there?"
Lungren has wrestled with this before. He was California's attorney general in 1996, when Congress last seriously revised immigration laws. As a House member in 1986, he helped write another major immigration overhaul.
Now, he's on the two House committees responsible for writing border control and immigration bills. He's floating some trial balloons - like granting legal residency to illegal immigrants who agree to perform national community service - and he's entertaining thoughts about what Congress might actually finish next year before adjourning for the 2006 elections.
"I've got my hopes," Lungren said, "and I've got my suspicions."
Border security and immigration reform present two related but distinguishable problems facing Congress. So far, border security - the "get tough" part of the equation - is moving more quickly. Immigration reform - the "get legal" part - comes next. Whether lawmakers connect them in the end, or keep them separated, is just one of the leading tactical questions now in play.
On Dec. 16, following two days of debate, the House by a 239-182 margin approved a multibillion-dollar border security bill. Naturally, it has a compelling name. Spelled out in a 480-page committee report, the Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act includes the reinforcements, penalties and fences that are typically the backbone of border bills.
The reinforcements include a 25 percent increase in the number of border canine teams. The penalties include a new felony crime called "illegal presence" in the United States, potentially covering some 11 million illegal immigrants. The multi-layered fence would span 700 miles along the U.S.-Mexican border; loaded with cameras, lights and sensors, it would cost upward of $2.2 billion.
"America is a compassionate nation that welcomes legal immigrants from all corners of the world," said Wisconsin Republican James Sensenbrenner, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. "But it is also a nation of laws."
The House action now tees up the issue for the Senate. Several things will happen when Congress returns in late January.
Inevitably, the border security bill itself will be revised. For instance, lawmakers are certain to soften or remove altogether the new provision creating a crime called "illegal presence." Currently, illegal entry to the United States is a misdemeanor. However, overstaying a visa - which accounts for about 40 percent of all illegal immigrants - is a civil rather than criminal matter. As currently written, the House bill would turn visa overstays into a felony punishable by a year and a day in prison.
The White House wants this reduced from a felony to a misdemeanor punishable by six months in prison. The only reason the House didn't do so already was Democrats' tactical intention to keep the bill as unpalatable as possible. Substantively, though, lawmakers from conservative Republicans to the most liberal Democrats dislike the new felony and will insist that it be removed or modified in a final bill.
"If you are a businessman here and your return flight home is canceled, causing your visitors visa ... to be expired, not only would you be in technical violation if you were two days late to the flight home, but you would also be committing a misdemeanor," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., a member of the House Judiciary Committee.
The 700-mile fence proposal is likewise all but certain to change, Utah Republican Chris Cannon said in an interview. Cannon predicted a final bill will likely include a relatively small fence provision but not the entire proposal.
"They are wasting $2.2 billion of taxpayer money to do something that has not worked anywhere else in the world even where they are willing to shoot the people that go through the fence, Communist China, Morocco," Oregon Democrat Peter DeFazio said of the 700-mile fence. "It is not going to work here either."
A crucial question for the Senate will be whether to go along with the House requirement that all U.S. employers use a government database to verify the eligibility of workers. The politically powerful U.S. Chamber of Commerce, among others, is worried about new burdens on the nation's employers.
Beyond controlling borders, the next task for Congress is reforming immigration more broadly. Many lawmakers want to take care of the agricultural industry's demands for a legal and plentiful workforce and resolve the fate of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants now in this country.
An early proposal focuses just on farm workers. This so-called AgJobs bill would grant work permits to an estimated 300,000 illegal immigrant farm workers; in time, they could apply for permanent U.S. residency and citizenship.
President Bush has accepted the idea of granting work permits, and extended it to other professions beyond farming. Unlike the AgJobs supporters, though, he wouldn't put the formerly illegal immigrants on an inside track toward U.S. permanent residency and citizenship.
Somewhat of a hybrid approach would permit illegal immigrants, in all professions, to pay a $1,000 fine in order to adjust their status. An important question is whether they would have to return to their home country before seeking permanent U.S. residency.
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