San Diego Union Tribune

March 26, 2006

Immigration issue reaching a critical point
Senators face deadline in bid for compromise

By Jerry Kammer

WASHINGTON – Against a background of rising political tension, protests and public frustration, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee will attempt to come up with a plan tomorrow to overhaul an immigration system that has spiraled out of control.

“We understand that the American people expect Congress to come to grips with this issue, and that's what we're trying to do,” said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, an advocate of tough enforcement who has been trying to reach a compromise with the Senate's most outspoken immigrant advocate, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

Because of a legislative deadline, the session that starts tomorrow could be the last chance for the committee's chairman, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., to forge a compromise between members who want to provide a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants in the country and those who reject such proposals as an amnesty that would reward unlawful behavior.

Specter also wants to reach agreement on proposals to provide legal channels for immigrant flows that, according to demographer Jeffrey Passell of the Pew Hispanic Center, are swelling the ranks of the nation's undocumented population by about 500,000 per year.

In addition, agricultural interests are waiting with an amendment, sponsored by Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, that would guarantee hundreds of thousands of workers for growers who say they can't find Americans willing to enter the fields.

The push for “comprehensive reform” has become so ambitious that opponents predict it will collapse under its own weight.

“I think it's going to implode. They're trying to do too much,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that advocates tight controls on immigration and rejects legalization as an encouragement for illegal immigration.

But Stewart Verdery, a former official in the Department of Homeland Security, warns that the status quo amounts to “amnesty by default” because the border remains porous and Congress hasn't given immigration authorities the mandate or resources to shut off the magnet of the low-wage work site.

Verdery, who favors the creation of legal channels for most of those who now cross the border illegally, is a lobbyist for an employer group called the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition and for the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

Immigrant advocate Frank Sharry is cautiously optimistic about the prospects for immigration reform, even as he acknowledges that as this year's midterm elections approach, Congress might shy away from such a volatile issue.

“If we can't get a good bill across the finish line this year, then we'll start 2007 with the understanding that you can't fix the immigration problem without dealing with the 12 million people here and without a program for future flows” of workers, said Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum.

The politics of immigration break generally along partisan lines. Most Democrats have lined up behind Kennedy, who has teamed up with maverick Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to sponsor a bill supported by a right-left coalition of business groups, church organizations, labor unions and Latino civil rights groups.

Claiming to acknowledge the “economic reality” of illegal immigrants' contributions to the U.S. economy, the McCain-Kennedy bill would allow them to earn the right to apply for citizenship if they pay a fine, learn English and settle all back taxes on income they might have earned in the burgeoning underground economy.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a member of the Judiciary Committee, has drifted away from the Democratic pack.

Feinstein also has warned that a sweeping legalization program would encourage more illegal immigration, especially from Latin American countries that are the source of about three of every four illegal immigrants. The problem compounds as immigration networks spread within the United States, she said.

Yet Feinstein has sided with California's huge agricultural lobby by indicating support for Craig's Agjobs bill, which would allow immigrants to earn a place in the citizenship line in return for several seasons of work in the fields.

Republicans are sharply divided between a business wing that says low-wage immigrant laborers are essential to economic growth and cultural conservatives who fear that poor immigrant workers will harden into a new underclass.

President Bush has failed to rally support for his vaguely outlined guest-worker proposal and has sent a series of mixed messages on immigration. While declaring that “family values don't stop at the Rio Grande,” the president also has called for a crackdown on illegal immigration at the border.

In his weekly radio address yesterday, President Bush urged Congress to write a new immigration law that includes a guest-worker program that could provide legal status, but not necessarily citizenship, for undocumented immigrants.

“As we debate the immigration issue, we must remember there are hardworking individuals, doing jobs that Americans will not do, who are contributing to the economic vitality of our country,” Bush said.

Some in the GOP endorse McCain's plan. Others say that before Congress embraces any guest-worker program, it must secure the borders and crack down on employers who make a mockery of current law by accepting counterfeit identification documents from illegal immigrants.

The clock is ticking at the Judiciary Committee. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., has said that if the committee fails to endorse a bill quickly, he will push his own enforcement legislation, which is similar to a measure passed late last year by the House of Representatives.

That bill, sponsored by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., would impose work-site employment controls and build 700 miles of border fence. It also would make it a crime to be in the country without proper documentation and to assist the efforts of an illegal immigrant to stay.

The last provision has provoked a furious response among a variety of religious organizations.

“It conflicts directly with the mission of the church to assist people who come to us and are in need,” said Kevin Appleby, director of migration and refugee policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The Sensenbrenner bill has galvanized immigrant communities across the country, propelling them onto the streets in a series of demonstrations that have drawn tens of thousands of participants in Phoenix, Los Angeles, Milwaukee and other cities, some wearing T-shirts declaring, “I Am Not a Criminal.”

“We work hard, we pay taxes, and we contribute every day to this great nation, which we also consider ours,” said Jaime Contreras, chairman of the National Capital Immigration Coalition in Washington.

“After all, this is a nation of immigrants, built by immigrants, and we do not deserve to be treated as second-class citizens.”

Of course, the fundamental problem for those most affected by the immigration debate is that they aren't citizens at all. However, the marches planned for the next several weeks are intended to demonstrate the political potential of immigrants and the stake they are claiming in their unsettled new home.

“It's a dangerous game the Republicans are playing,” said Cecilia Muñoz, vice president of the National Council of La Raza, who compared Sensenbrenner to former California Gov. Pete Wilson.

Wilson, a Republican who won re-election in 1994 after making illegal immigration a major issue in his campaign, antagonized Latino voters who saw racist undertones in his message.

Muñoz said Republicans today should learn a lesson about getting tough on illegal immigration:

“Maybe in the short term it helps you win elections,” she said. “But in the long term it helps convince Latinos that this isn't a party where they can be comfortable.”

Muñoz makes it clear that her message is directed at Bush, who last year endorsed the Sensenbrenner bill but who also has called for guest-worker legislation to match “willing worker with willing employer” when Americans don't step up to fill a job.

Bush showed his understanding this week of the volatility of immigration politics, urging that the debate “be done in a civil way.”

“It must be done in a way that brings dignity to the process,” he said. “It must be done in a way that doesn't pit one group of people against the other.”

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