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U.S. Senate at impasse on immigration bill
San Francisco Chronicle


April 06, 2006

WASHINGTON - The compromises emerging from closed-door efforts to forge a Senate consensus on immigration have even ardent supporters of changing the law wondering whether the current dysfunctional system might not be so bad after all.

The Senate impasse offers a vivid demonstration of how daunting, politically and practically, it is to solve the issue of 12 million human beings living illegally in the country. Their existence is the result of past compromises and their unintended consequences, stretching over several decades and rooted in a long history of divided public opinion that veers spasmodically between nativism and inclusion.




Congress last overhauled U.S. immigration law in 1986, providing amnesty to 3 million illegal immigrants, half the illegal population at the time, but without expanding future legal ways of entering the country. Within 10 years, the illegal population had rebounded, and Congress passed another law attempting to toughen border enforcement, pouring money into the Border Patrol and building a fence in San Diego, among other things. Another decade has passed, and the illegal population has reached the size of the population of Ohio.

The current Senate bill is "a valiant effort to try to salvage a bill on which a lot of political blood has been spilled, but I don't think a bill should be salvaged by violating ... accepted understanding of what went well and what did not go well with the 1986 legislation," said Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research group.

The danger, he said, is that Congress could produce legislation that "does not solve fundamental problems we have with immigration today, or solves them in such a way that I can see clearly three or five years from now, starting the same 20-year cycle of trying to fix a lousy system."

The Senate bill is modeled largely on a bipartisan effort by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., that would provide a chance for permanent residence after about 11 years for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants if they learn English, pass background checks, remain employed, take civics courses, pay hefty fines and pay back taxes.

The bill was cobbled together under a crushing deadline from several conflicting pieces of legislation. Roughly 300 pages long, it is a complex and far-reaching amalgam that includes everything from a farmworker program to a border crackdown.

"The Senate Judiciary Committee was trying to act with a gun not just pointed at its head but against its temple and cocked," Papademetriou said. "Everything including the kitchen sink is in that legislation."

Many Republicans believe the bill provides amnesty for those who broke the law to enter the country. To draw more Republican votes, supporters are floating various compromises to somehow evade the amnesty charge.

But that task requires mixing oil and water: making illegal immigrants go home while allowing them to stay.

The irony is that almost no one in the Senate who opposes the bill thinks it is wise or practical to round up 12 million people and send them home. And supporters say they oppose amnesty, but believe illegal immigrants should be allowed to earn legal permanent residence.

One plan under intense discussion would divide the 12 million into three groups, depending on how long they have been in the country. Newer arrivals would face more difficult requirements.

One of those rules would be to touch base at the border, by somehow checking in at a port of entry to make it appear they are exiting the country if only for a very short time.

"All you're really giving in on is a process, not substance," Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., who supports the Senate bill, said during negotiations.


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