San Diego Union Tribune

May 13, 2005
Legislators tout immigration plan, border security
Foes fear 'amnesty,' drain on economy

By Jerry Kammer

WASHINGTON – Setting the stage for a fierce national debate, members of the House and Senate yesterday introduced legislation that could grant legal status and a path to citizenship for the estimated 10 million to 12 million illegal immigrants now in the United States.

Moreover, employers who cannot readily fill job vacancies in the future would have access every year to a separate fresh pool of about 400,000 foreign workers under a new guest-worker program. Those workers also would have eventual access to citizenship.

The legislation, which immediately thrilled immigration advocates and horrified those who want to see immigration restricted, would be the most sweeping immigration legislation in four decades if enacted.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., took the lead during a highly choreographed introduction of the legislation, saying it would protect national security, an economy increasingly dependent on undocumented workers, and immigrants who risk death to cross the fiery deserts of the Southwest.

"The simple fact is (that) America's immigration system is broke," McCain said at a news conference where he joined Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and three House members in launching "The Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act of 2005."

The bill would grant temporary legal status to most undocumented immigrants here illegally. After six years on the job, they would be permitted to apply for permanent residence if they learn English and pass a background check. They would pay a fine of $2,000 for entering the U.S. illegally.

The sponsors immediately took on the toughest political challenge to the legislation by characterizing it as an "earned adjustment to legalization" rather than an amnesty – a word that has become a flash point for the opposition.

"This bill is not amnesty," insisted Kennedy, noting the fine. "This bill does not provide a free pass to anyone."

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, strenuously disagreed. "Earned adjustment is just a euphemism for amnesty," he said.

Both Kennedy and McCain said the bill would improve border security by providing legal channels for what are now chaotic immigration flows that the Department of Homeland Security fears could provide cover for terrorists.

Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, denounced the bill as "lousy and reckless immigration policy that would harm the interests of American workers."

He said the workers would see wages driven down by competition from a virtually endless supply of workers from impoverished regions of the world where the U.S. minimum wage seems like a king's ransom.

"This is what supporters of open borders have been dreaming about," said Krikorian. He noted that the bill also provides for big increases in visas for the relatives of immigrants and a big annual jump in employment-based visas.

Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., said that the bill attempts to boost cooperation with Mexico to stem not only illegal immigration from Mexico but also the steadily rising flow of Central and South Americans across the southern border of the United States.

"Mexico could do more to strengthen its northern and southern border," said Kolbe.

Acknowledging that the bill would stir fierce opposition in the House, Kolbe said its strategists plan to make a push in the Senate, which has long been more open to expansive immigration policies.

"If it comes out of the Senate with broad support and with the vocal and enthusiastic support of the president, then they could get it done in the House as well," said Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute and an advocate of the sort of programs envisioned in the bill.

President Bush has called for a vague guest-worker program, and McCain said yesterday the bill fits the president's hope for a program to match "willing worker with willing employer." But the White House has not endorsed the bill.

Some legislative strategists say that intense opposition to the president's proposals to reform Social Security will make him reluctant to take an early position on immigration legislation that is sure to spark heated debate.

The debate already has begun on enforcement provisions of the bill that call on the Department of Labor to audit employers to ensure that their workers have legal status.

The linchpin of enforcement for the guest-worker program will be a tamper-resistant identity card with a biometric identifier that will confirm if the card was issued to the person presenting it. It would be swiped through a machine like a credit card.

Illegal immigrants now routinely foil existing requirements by using someone else's Social Security card or counterfeit documents from driver licenses, to permanent resident visas, to Social Security cards.

A member of McCain's staff promised tough action against wayward employers, including fines and ineligibility to participate in the guest-worker program.

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