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Senate begins tweaking immigration bill
McClatchy Newspapers


April 04, 2006

WASHINGTON -- Political traps, hidden costs and unforeseen consequences loom over the big immigration bill that the Senate continued amending Monday.

So far, lawmakers are still nibbling at the edges. Early Monday evening, senators agreed to add $50 million a year to assist law enforcement agencies within 100 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border.

"This is not a responsibility that should just be dumped on local law enforcement," said Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, author of the amendment adopted by an 84-6 margin. "It really should be the responsibility of the federal government."




Senators agreed, as well, to provide $500 grants for legal immigrants trying to learn English on their way to obtaining U.S. citizenship.

With Monday's non-controversial votes, the Senate has taken nearly a week to adopt three minor changes to a 487-page immigration bill. The meandering start means senators will be speaking and voting late into the night through at least Thursday, with hopes of completing the bill before embarking on a two-week recess.

"We have a prodigious job ahead of us in order to finish," said Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The committee's bill would combine tougher border control measures with two separate guest-worker programs serving both farm workers and non-agricultural employees. It includes, as well, provisions to legalize the estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants already in the United States.

The job is so big that lawmakers don't always know the scope of what they're doing.

The comprehensive Senate immigration bill, for instance, adds 14,000 new Border Patrol agents and 3,000 new port-of-entry inspectors over the next six years. The Senate, so far, has not officially calculated how much this would cost.

It will be a lot, though, if future Congresses actually provide the funds to fill the authorized positions. Each new port-of-entry inspector costs $100,000 a year, a previous Congressional Budget Office study estimated. This would total $300 million for the six years' worth of port-of-entry reinforcements called for in the Senate bill.

Adding the 14,000 new Border Patrol agents would cost well over $3.1 billion, previous congressional budget estimates indicate.

"Almost all of us agree that the first step we have to take is securing the border," said Republican Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona. "It's going to take money, and it's going to take will."

Kyl backs the border control but not the guest-worker and legalization provisions in the Senate Judiciary Committee's bill. Negotiations are underway in search of what's probably a long-shot compromise, with a crucial issue remaining whether immigrants must return to their home country at some point.

The bill is packed with other potential big-ticket items whose precise cost largely has been ignored during the Senate debate. These include stiff new detention requirements that go well beyond the federal government's existing 20,000 immigration detention beds.

Even the modest-sounding grants for citizenship-bound immigrants to study English, approved by a 91-1 margin, would add up. Between 2001 and 2004, 2.1 million immigrants applied for naturalization. If half were to have obtained one of the proposed new grants, the total cost would reach $500 million.

Instead of costs, though, senators on Monday spoke strictly of benefits.

"This is about redoubling our efforts to help prospective citizens become Americans," said Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.

In other ways, too, the Senate debate has glided over potentially significant legislative details. For instance, Kyl promoted one pending amendment to "bar criminal aliens from participating in a temporary worker program." The most prominent provisions would block those convicted of felonies or three misdemeanors from participating.

More quietly, the amendment also would block those who have not complied with a previous deportation order. An estimated 500,000 immigrants have ignored deportation orders from immigration judges, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement estimates; immigrant advocates, though, caution that often immigrants don't even know the orders have been issued.

"It would exclude literally millions of immigrants," Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts insisted Monday.


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