By MICHAEL DOYLE
March 11, 2006
"We have a lot of catching up to do," Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said. "We're going to have to make a massive investment."
The committee will return Wednesday to continue writing the immigration bill, which started at 305 pages and has been growing ever since. With dozens of potential amendments awaiting, Senate leaders still hope they can vote on the bill the week of March 27.
The Senate bill then will have to be reconciled with a House border security measure, which the Congressional Budget Office estimates would cost $1.9 billion over the next five years.
The investments approved Thursday included building modern new fences along portions of the Arizona-Mexico border, and finding many more beds behind bars. An amendment requires the detention starting Oct. 1 of all non-Mexican illegal immigrants who are captured trying to enter the United States illegally.
Last year, some 165,000 such illegal immigrants were seized. Most were released on bail or on their own recognizance, and many subsequently disappeared.
"The system is a mockery, a joke," said Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama. "The only way to make the system work is to say that if you are apprehended, you will be detained."
Sessions has been casting himself as the most stringent law-and-order voice on the 19-member Judiciary Committee, which began formally marking up the year's big immigration bill on Wednesday. Many of the committee's most high-profile Democrats, including ranking member Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont and New York Sen. Charles Schumer, have largely missed the working sessions so far.
But one who's been attending regularly, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., cautioned that the mandatory detention rules will come with a big price tag. Currently, the federal government only has about 20,000 detention beds.
"There are no facilities," Feinstein warned.
The senators didn't estimate how much it may cost to build all the necessary detention space. Illustrating the lingering confusion around this high-stakes fight, senators also left for next week the task of figuring out exactly what they did regarding the Border Patrol's growth.
In a hubbub of voice voting, some senators thought they had approved hiring the 12,000 new Border Patrol agents over the next five years. These senators, including Feinstein, thought 2,400 new agents would be hired in the first two years, and then 2,000 new agents would be hired in the following three years.
But it quickly became apparent after the three and a half hour meeting adjourned that Sessions and other Republicans thought they had actually approved hiring all 12,000 new Border Patrol agents in two years. Befuddled committee staffers said they would review the hearing transcript to find out what had really happened.
"We're going to have to work it out," Feinstein said.
Senators postponed deciding whether they should follow the House's lead in creating a new crime of illegal presence in the United States. Currently, it's illegal to cross a border without approval, and people who overstay their visas can be deported, but it is not presently a crime to be in the country as an illegal immigrant.
At least three Republicans - Sens. Sam Brownback of Kansas, Orrin Hatch of Utah and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania - suggested they don't want to necessarily label all of the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants as criminals.
"I think there is a consensus on the committee that we do not (support) the criminalization of a large number of people," said Specter, the committee's chairman.
Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com
Publish A Letter on SitNews Read Letters/Opinions