The Senate voted yesterday to grant amnesty to hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens who have already been caught and ordered deported but are defying a court order, preserving their path to citizenship as part of the immigration bill.
Another showdown is scheduled for this morning on Democrats’ effort to cut off the debate and force a final vote on the bill. Republicans have vowed to block that through a filibuster unless they are given assurances they can offer enough amendments before the final vote.
The small bipartisan group of senators that had crafted the bill behind closed doors and fended off any major changes suffered a big loss early this morning when the Senate passed an amendment to end part of the temporary worker program after five years — an amendment those who wrote the agreement said “kills the bill.”
Yesterday’s major fight was over part of the bill that wipes out the immigration charges against illegal aliens who have already faced a judge and been ordered deported, known as alien absconders, and over part of the bill that applies to aliens who have already been deported but sneaked back into the country again.
Sen John Cornyn offered an amendment to prevent those aliens from gaining legal status, arguing they have already shown disrespect for the law and should be sent home.
“We are going to continue to be viewed as non-serious about workability, about enforcement, about restoring respect for the rule of law, unless we vote to exclude those who show nothing but defiance for our laws,” the Texas Republican said.
But Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, said they were only guilty of “common, garden-variety immigration offenses” that should not disqualify them.
“Our employers beg them to come back and our broken borders make that possible,” he said.
Other Democrats, including Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island Democrat, said Mr. Cornyn’s amendment would remove due process rights for illegal aliens. But Republicans said those being affected are illegal aliens who are already in the country without authorization, and in the case of absconders have even had their day in court.
“Nobody has a constitutional legal right to demand entry into the United States,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican. “It amazes me the lack of understanding and comprehension of what it’s all about.”
Mr. Cornyn’s amendment was defeated 51-46, with 10 Republicans joining most Democrats and the chamber’s two independents in voting to preserve the path to citizenship for absconders.
The Senate did pass another amendment sponsored by Mr. Kennedy that tightened rules on excluding gang members and terrorist supporters, but Mr. Cornyn said it would still allow sex offenders and repeat drunken drivers to remain in the country and get legal status.
Under the bill, the estimated 12 million to 20 million illegal aliens would have a chance for legal status and could eventually apply for a green card and citizenship. The bill also creates a new temporary-worker program for hundreds of thousands of new foreign workers per year, and rewrites the rules on immigration to favor those with needed skills and high education attainment.
But the potential fatal blow came with an amendment that ends the temporary worker program after five years. It was sponsored by Sen. Byron L. Dorgan and passed 49-48. It was a major a reversal from two weeks ago when a similar amendment from the North Dakota Democrat was defeated after Mr. Kennedy talked a Democrat into switching his vote.
Yesterday, before the vote, Mr. McCain said passing it would break apart the “grand bargain” behind the bill.