WASHINGTON – Despite
pressure from Senate Republicans for more time to reach an
agreement on immigration reform behind closed doors,
Majority Leader Harry Reid is sticking to a pledge to open
Senate debate next week. In the absence of a new proposal,
he plans to use the bill the Senate passed last year as
the starting point.
Reid's move raises the political stakes for
Republicans, including presidential aspirant John McCain,
who helped Democratic colleague Edward Kennedy to drive
last year's bill to passage.
But McCain has since shied away from its expansive
proposals to provide legal status for the estimated 12
million people in the country illegally and open the door
to more temporary foreign workers in the years ahead.
The Arizona senator, mindful that the conservative
Republicans who will be crucial in next year's primaries
tend to favor more border security and tighter immigration
controls, has adopted a more cautious stance. He has
joined other Republicans in urging Reid to allow private,
bipartisan talks to continue rather than picking up where
the Senate ended last year.
“He wants a bill that is bipartisan and that ensures
that border security is first,” McCain spokeswoman Melissa
Shuffield said yesterday.
The latest congressional immigration drama is unfolding
against a backdrop of frustration on all sides.
Immigration advocates across the nation have taken to
the streets demanding that immigrants' work be rewarded
with green cards and a path to citizenship. Opponents have
held rallies warning that such a step would fuel illegal
entry by showing that the United States is too divided to
enforce its own immigration laws.
Congress is groping for a way to fix a system
universally regarded as broken.
Any potential solution will have to address major
questions: How many immigrants will be allowed? Who will
benefit and who will lose under the changes?
“One issue is that the benefits come mostly to interest
groups, while the costs are widely diffused” throughout
society, said Michael Teitelbaum, a demographer with the
nonprofit Alfred E. Sloan Foundation.
Frank Sharry of the National Immigration Forum, which
advocates for expansive immigration policies, says federal
policy should reflect the reality that employers depend on
low-wage immigrant labor.
“The best way to serve the national interest is to
allow people to come legally within realistic limits and
to have a process by which people already here working and
contributing can legalize their status,” Sharry said.
For the past two months, the Bush administration has
been attempting to broker a deal that would avoid last
year's stalemate, when the Senate passed its sweeping
legalization bill and the House focused on tightening the
Reform advocates are urging Congress to move quickly,
warning that preparations for the 2008 presidential
election and other pressing business might make it
impossible for lawmakers to concentrate on immigration
after the fall.
Even in the Senate, the going has been rough because of
differences between the pro-immigration ranks, led by
Kennedy of Massachusetts, and the restrictionists, led by
Republican Jon Kyl of Arizona. In a major concession, Kyl
has indicated a willingness to consider legalization for
the illegal immigrants now in the country.
But in return, Kyl demands that future temporary
workers be required to go home after a fixed period.
Kennedy wants them to have a guaranteed chance at a green
card, which would put them on a path to citizenship.
Their divisions reflect the gap in perceptions of how
the current wave of immigrants fits into the historical
narrative of immigration. The fundamental question: Will
today's immigrants be able to repeat the upward climb
achieved by previous waves?
Kennedy is optimistic. “The values that immigrants
bring, of hard work, family and faith, are values that
strengthen our nation enormously,” he said.
Kennedy says the children of today's illegal immigrants
will find the middle-class success that has long defined
the American dream.
But Kyl worries that the rising numbers of immigrants
at the lowest rungs of the economy will harm citizens
competing for the same jobs. He also worries that
low-skilled immigrants could form a permanent underclass.
Some Republicans also want to overhaul the green-card
system, which gives an enormous advantage to people
related to U.S. citizens and green-card holders. While
they believe that immediate family members should continue
to be eligible for green cards, they do not think adult
children and siblings should get them based on family
They want more visas for immigrants with specialized
skills and abilities. Their proposal, floated in a White
House draft plan in March, brought an immediate reaction
from the Asian-Americans and Latinos who have been the
principal beneficiaries of the family-based system.
“This would undermine Asian-American communities,” said
Karen Narasaki, president of the Asian American Justice
GOP strategists fear that if Republicans try to keep
Reid from getting the 60 votes he would need next week to
open the debate with last year's bill, Democratic ad
campaigns would brand them as anti-immigrant.
Meanwhile, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, hoping to head
off possible Republican campaign spots denouncing a
“Kennedy-Pelosi amnesty,” has told the White House it will
have to deliver at least 70 GOP votes to pass any bill
that comes to the House floor.
There is broad feeling in Congress that the public
expects action to manage a problem that has become what
even longtime immigration advocate Rep. Howard Berman,
D-Los Angeles, calls “a national crisis.”
Much of the urgency comes from a sense of unease that
has swept across the country in the past decade as illegal
immigration – once an issue in a handful of states – has
surged in such heartland regions as Iowa, Indiana and
Georgia. The country's illegal-immigrant population is now
growing at about 500,000 per year, said demographer
Jeffrey Passell of the Pew Hispanic Center. That's part of
a steady climb, from annual rates of about 65,000 in the
mid-1980s and 320,000 in the mid-'90s.
The trend has been fueled by Congress, which passed a
series of measures that have boosted legal immigration
from 265,000 in 1960, to 373,000 in 1970, to 524,000 in
1980, to 1.26 million last year. Much of the recent
increase can be traced to a 1986 amnesty that gave green
cards to 2.7 million illegal immigrants, who soon began
sponsoring relatives for green cards.
Kennedy and others are pushing for a legalization
program that would dwarf the 1986 amnesty. Their plan
would make newly legalized immigrants eligible to bring in
relatives, and the number of immigrants could soar above
today's levels. Opponents say such growth, especially if
it continues to draw from low-skilled, poorly educated
immigrants, would become an enormous burden on taxpayers.