The Senate will take up border security as its first major bill next year, but the debate will include both guest-worker plans and a path to citizenship for illegal aliens, Majority Leader Bill Frist announced yesterday.
"We're going to start with border security, but in the same time we're on the floor we're going to build on that and extend that to the enforcement issues and the issues of more comprehensive reform, and give guest-worker [plans] full consideration," said Mr. Frist, Tennessee Republican.
With the Senate's open rules for debate, that means senators will end up voting on Sen. John McCain's plan to legalize illegal aliens and increase legal immigration, Sen. John Cornyn's temporary-worker plan that requires illegal aliens to return home within five years, and probably several different versions of border and interior enforcement.
"We start out with enforcement, we move to guest-worker, and then we move to the issue of the 11 million people who are here," said Mr. McCain, Arizona Republican, who is sponsoring a plan along with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, that would offer a multistep path to citizenship for most of those estimated 11 million illegal aliens. "It's just the resolution of how you shape the guest-worker program and also how you treat the 11 million people who are already here."
Mr. Frist said he has not decided what the initial border security bill will look like, but it "will look at the number of [U.S. Border Patrol] agents, it will look at what supplies we provide them with [and] the increasing use of technology."
Mr. Frist told The Washington Times two weeks ago he would bring a border security bill to the Senate floor first. But senators made it clear they would offer their own broad immigration plans as amendments to any border security bill that reached the floor, which meant the whole debate would erupt whether Mr. Frist wanted it to or not.
Advocacy groups who want broad legalization and a guest-worker program were happy with the arrangement, saying it would allow Republicans to satisfy their base's call for border security while also offering a chance to legalize the estimated 11 million illegal aliens already here.
"The leaders in the Senate are smart enough to know it's got to be comprehensive. Those are the policies we've seen introduced in the Senate," said Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum. "The debate's going to happen. The Senate's going to step up and take a lead in a responsible way, which they're better capable of doing than the screaming matches I see going on in the House."
Whatever the Senate passes will have to be reconciled with the House, and the broader the Senate bill the less chance there is of an agreement. House Republicans plan to pass a stand-alone immigration enforcement bill by the end of this year, according to Republican leaders.
One Senate aide who is opposed to legalization said building a bill from the ground up on the Senate floor is preferable to having to go through the Senate Judiciary Committee, because a bill from that committee would probably be lenient bill toward illegal aliens. If a broader bill were the starting point, it would be difficult to remove those provisions, the aide said.
The issue for Republicans like Mr. Cornyn, who opposes what he calls the "work-and-stay" concept in Mr. McCain's bill -- which allows both new foreign workers and current illegal aliens a path to remain in the United States permanently -- is whether they will support the final bill if Mr. McCain's amendment is included.
"I'm going to reserve judgment on that," Mr. Cornyn said. "I will tell you I will not support, nor do I think the American people will accept, a bill that's perceived as being amnesty, and that is the outlier I think that we all have to live with."
Also yesterday Sen. Chuck Hagel, Nebraska Republican, reintroduced his own immigration plan that he sponsored last Congress with then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat.
This year, Mr. Hagel split his plan into four parts -- border security, employee verification, a guest-worker plan and a path to citizenship for current illegal aliens -- and put more emphasis on the border security provisions.
His plan would give illegal aliens who can show they have been in the country for five years and who have worked for three years a multistep path to citizenship. Those here for less than five years could apply for a visa to stay in the short term, but would eventually have to return home and go through the regular process to return.
Mr. Hagel said he, too, thinks that nothing can pass the Senate "unless the border security issue is dealt with right up front and, to our citizens, giving them some assurance that we can then fit these other areas of immigration reform in without loosening our borders or without sacrificing our security."