By MICHAEL DOYLE
February 27, 2006
With immigration bills already flying left and right, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee has unveiled his own comprehensive reform proposal. It's a big bundle, spanning 305 pages and covering everything from border fences to guest workers.
"There's a little something for everyone," Tamar Jacoby of the conservative Manhattan Institute said in an interview, "but there's also something here that's going to be a deal-killer for everyone."
A moderate Republican who took over the judiciary panel last year, Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter until recently was concentrating on confirming President Bush's Supreme Court nominees. The long-awaited immigration package his committee will consider Thursday offers a menu well beyond a border security bill passed by the House last year.
Specter's bill does feature new crackdown measures, including creating a new misdemeanor crime of being present illegally in the United States. Theoretically, this could subject the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants now in this country to jail terms of up to six months. The bill also calls for a study of building a "physical barrier system" along the U.S. borders with both Mexico and Canada.
But Specter stops short of what the House bill would do. The House measure, for instance, authorizes construction of a double-layer fence along much of the U.S.-Mexico border that could cost $2.5 billion or more. The Senate bill only authorizes studying a fence. The House bill makes illegal presence in the United States a felony. Specter would keep it a misdemeanor except for repeat violators. The House bill would require all workers to have their eligibility checked against a national database. The Senate bill covers only new employees.
"It is in our national security interest to better protect our borders," Specter wrote his Senate colleagues Friday. "Similarly, it is in our nation's economic interest that we address the need for labor in this country so that employers are able to find and hire available workers."
The Senate bill includes, as well, a new guest-worker program and a temporary legal status program that the House bill lacked.
"We're heartened by the fact the Senate is doing this," Rep. George Radanovich, R-Calif., said in a telephone interview. "It will be more acceptable than what passed the House, that's for sure."
Tougher enforcement measures, including Specter's proposal to hire more than 1,000 additional Customs and Border Patrol officers and investigators, are certain to be part of any immigration bill.
A much bigger fight looms over the illegal immigrants already in this country. Specter's bill would create a new "conditional non-immigrant work authorization" status for those currently in the United States illegally. The "alien," as the legislation puts it, would have to pay back taxes while the employer would have to pay a $500 fee.
This would grant the illegal immigrant a temporary legal status. The Senate legislation would not put the alien on track toward permanent legal status or U.S. citizenship.
"I understand where Senator Specter is coming from," said Marc Grossman, Sacramento-based spokesman for the United Farm Workers, "but a realistic solution to our broken immigration system has to have an earned legalization as well as additional border enforcement."
Separately, the Senate bill does include a new guest-worker provision, not limited to agriculture, which would permit working immigrants to enter the United States for a maximum of six years. Afterward, they would have to return home.
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