San Diego Union Tribune

March 28, 2006

Pro-immigrant bill advances
Senate set to consider measure that may open citizenship to millions

By Jerry Kammer

WASHINGTON – The Senate Judiciary Committee passed a sweeping immigration bill yesterday that would allow an estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States to seek citizenship.

It also would provide temporary work visas and legalization opportunities to hundreds of thousands more foreign workers annually in the years ahead.

By a 12-6 vote, in which four Republicans joined all eight Democrats, the committee sided with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who sponsored the bill. He praised illegal immigrants as “people who work hard and want to be part of the American dream.”

The panel rejected the wariness of Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who warned his colleagues that when an inevitable recession puts native-born Americans in job competition with millions of freshly legalized immigrants, they would face the wrath of voters demanding to know “how did you let this happen?”

The bill, which also would double the size of the Border Patrol, now heads to the Senate floor with a full head of steam and appears likely to pass with the help of the same bipartisan coalition that prevailed yesterday in the committee.

While a floor fight from conservative Republicans is inevitable, the Senate, traditionally more liberal on immigration policy than the House, appears ready to ignore public opinion polls that show swelling national anxiety about illegal immigration and opposition to large-scale legalization.

“It's a practical solution,” said Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. “We're not going to deport them. We're not going to round them up.”

The next step on the legislative track, assuming the bill clears the Senate, would normally be a conference committee with the House, which passed an immigration measure in December that offered no legalization, seeking instead a crackdown on illegal immigration.

That approach ignited huge pro-immigrant street protests in U.S. cities in the last week and prompted student walkouts yesterday.

But partisans on both sides of the issue said the two chambers are so far apart that a conference might never happen.

Republican leaders are likely to postpone it at least until after the midterm elections in November, when Congress meets in a lame duck session.

“That would mean President Bush would have to weigh in,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an immigrant rights umbrella organization.

Bush has asked Congress for a guest-worker program and praised illegal immigrants for their tenacity and work ethic. But he also has tried to placate his conservative base by rejecting anything that would constitute amnesty for illegal immigrants and by underscoring his commitment to enforce immigration laws.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter whipped the bill into shape over the objections of several members who complained that he was moving too fast.

When Specter adjourned the session, immigration advocates let out a cheer in the back of the packed hearing room at the end of an intense day of debate.

Randall Johnson of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce hugged Joanne Butterfield of the liberal American Immigration Lawyers Association. Sharry slapped the back of Kevin Appleby, who directs the immigration program of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“The Catholic boys did it!” Sharry exclaimed, referring to the intense lobbying of Catholic clergy on behalf of immigrants and against the House bill, which they condemned as an effort to make criminals of those who provided humanitarian assistance to illegal immigrants in desperate straits.

While the immigrant advocates won the day, the committee made one concession to the Republicans who warned that they were running the country into a demographic ditch.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., produced charts in support of his assertion that the measure would provide visas to 34 million people over the next decade, as newcomers qualified for work visas and green cards.

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“So I'm saying this is a big deal,” said Sessions, who predicted more severe stress on labor markets, schools, health systems, the environment and the jails.

The committee approved Sessions' proposal for a 90-day period to study the long-term implications of the legislation, to allow Congress the opportunity to consider changing its mind.

The measure would also permit illegal immigrants now in the country to apply for citizenship without first having to return home, a process that would take at least six years or more.

One of the pivotal Republicans was Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who talked of his concern for immigrant families, many of whom have sunk roots into the United States and now consider this country to be their home.

“We as a nation have sat on the sidelines since at least the '80s and allowed this problem to build up,” said Graham, rejecting the criticism that the bill provided amnesty for the estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants living in the country.

Instead of receiving a blanket pardon of amnesty, Graham said, they would have to earn the green cards that provide permanent legal residence and the option to apply for citizenship.

The measure, which Kennedy sponsored along with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., would require the immigrants to pay a fine, learn English, settle back taxes and clear a criminal background check.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., not only endorsed Graham's measure, she introduced an amendment that over a five-year period would allow 1.5 million farmworkers to earn green cards in return for several seasons of work in the fields.

That measure, which passed 11-5, was sought by an unlikely coalition of growers and farmworker advocates.

“The thrust of this is to create a legalized work force for the industry,” said Feinstein, who last year opposed the measure. She sought to balance her support for massive legalization by sponsoring another amendment that over the next five years would double the Border Patrol from its current level of just under 12,000 agents.

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