- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 22, 2006

The ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee has asked Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales for information on the Justice Department’s role in engineering what he called a “punitive provision” in the House-passed immigration bill making illegal presence in the United States a felony.

“It was recently reported that the Justice Department requested the inclusion of provisions in the House immigration bill … which are controversial in that they are seen to criminalize both undocumented presence in the United States as well as acts of humanitarian assistance in the aid of undocumented individuals,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont.

In the letter, Mr. Leahy said the bill could “brand 12 million undocumented immigrants in America as felons,” adding that House leaders have confirmed that the Bush administration was behind the initial push to include the provision in the legislation introduced by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican and House Judiciary Committee chairman.

However, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said earlier this month that “it remains our intent to produce a strong border-security bill that will not make unlawful presence in the United States a felony.”

When Mr. Sensenbrenner offered an amendment to reduce the penalty to a misdemeanor, it was defeated 257-164 — with 191 Democrats voting against it. The felony provision has been the rallying cry for thousands of demonstrators who are protesting immigration reform in cities across the country.

Mr. Sensenbrenner has said the felony provision will be removed once the Senate approves an immigration bill and the two chambers begin negotiations to complete work on the legislation.

The House bill also calls for more U.S. Border Patrol agents, mandatory database checks of employees’ eligibility to work, expanded and expedited removal of illegal aliens and allowing sheriffs’ deputies along the border to help enforce immigration law.

Mr. Leahy noted in the letter that Mr. Sensenbrenner, during a floor speech on Dec. 6, acknowledged that the felony provision had been requested by the administration. He said Mr. Sensenbrenner told the House that the bill “makes unlawful presence a crime, such as unlawful entry already is. … Aliens who have disregarded our laws by overstaying their visas to remain in the United States illegally should be just as culpable as aliens who have broken our laws to enter and remain here illegally.”

He called the House bill a “narrow and punitive measure” that fails to adequately fix the nation’s broken immigration system. Under current law, he said, illegal aliens caught in the United States can be deported through a civil proceeding rather than the more costly criminal process.

A bipartisan Senate compromise still being considered contains what Mr. Leahy described as “tough enforcement measures to secure the nation’s borders as well as comprehensive and realistic reforms that would establish a temporary worker program and an earned-legalization program for the millions of immigrants who now live in the shadows.”

In the letter, Mr. Leahy asked Mr. Gonzales to provide a detailed account of all contacts between the Justice Department, other components of the administration and the House Republican leadership concerning the immigration bill.

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