- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 20, 2005

The Senate yesterday turned back a proposed amnesty for up to 1 million illegal immigrant agricultural workers and their families, though it gained support of more than half the chamber.

In the first major vote on immigration policy in almost a decade, the Senate fell seven votes shy of the 60 required to proceed with the amendment, which would have offered the illegal immigrants a three-step path to citizenship. A vote on a guest-worker program with no path to citizenship also failed, by an overwhelming margin.

“Nobody really wanted either of those proposals to pass. They knew they hadn’t been fully and carefully considered,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, who voted against the amendments.

The votes came as part of the debate on the emergency supplemental appropriations bill to fund operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. The immigration provisions have held up action for the past week.

A third amendment to raise the cap on temporary seasonal nonfarm workers passed. The Senate then voted to limit debate on the spending bill, an indication that the bill likely will pass later this week.

The amnesty and guest-worker votes indicate that it may be difficult for Congress to pass any broader immigration reform this year.

The defeat of the “Ag-jobs” legislation sponsored by Sen. Larry E. Craig, Idaho Republican, was considered a significant vote by both supporters and opponents. Ag-jobs would have created a three-step path to citizenship for agricultural workers who were in the country illegally at the beginning of the year and had worked 100 days out of 12 months in the agriculture sector.

Under the proposal, the workers would earn temporary legal status, leading eventually to a green card denoting legal permanent residence, and then the chance to apply for citizenship.

“I don’t call that amnesty; I call that hard-earned labor paid for to get the ability to stay and work,” Mr. Craig said.

Because the measure offered the prospect of citizenship to illegals, opponents called it an amnesty that would encourage even foreign workers who had left the United States to return in hopes of qualifying.

“I don’t know anything that stands the law on its head more than that,” said Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican.

Before the vote, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy said the amendment was essentially a test to see whether the Senate this year could pass a broader guest-worker program like the one proposed by Mr. Bush last year.

Afterward, the Massachusetts Democrat said the narrowness of the final vote on the Ag-jobs amendment signaled the possibility of a workable coalition for future immigration measures. “I think we’ve got a very critical mass, and the real question is how it’s going to express itself,” Mr. Kennedy said.

Immigration rights groups lobbied heavily for Mr. Craig’s amendment, while groups favoring limits begged their grass-roots supporters to communicate their opposition to senators.

In the end, the opponents claimed victory.

“The sense I got from [Capitol] Hill was that a number of senators had second thoughts because of strong constituent opposition to this,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports stricter limits on immigration.

Mr. Krikorian said those calls apparently worked on some senators who had signed on as sponsors of last year’s version of Ag-jobs but voted against the amendment yesterday.

All three amendments were subject to 60-vote thresholds. Mr. Craig’s amendment failed 53-45. The proposal by Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Georgia Republican, that would have created a renewable temporary-worker program for illegal immigrant agricultural workers but dropped the citizenship provision, was rejected 77-21.

Twenty-eight senators voted against both measures.

The amendment that passed was sponsored by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, Maryland Democrat, and raises the cap on H-2B visas for temporary seasonal nonfarm workers. The amendment, which allows former workers to return to their same employer and not count against the 66,000 annual cap, passed 94-6.

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