House Republicans on Wednesday jump-started the immigration debate, pushing through the Judiciary Committee a key immigration-enforcement measure to require businesses to check new employees' work status against a government database — but the fight highlighted deep divides that make it unlikely any bill clears Congress in the near future.
In a sharp turnaround from their usual stances, Democrats fighting to defeat the bill accused Republicans of offering "amnesty" to at least some illegal-immigrant agriculture workers who would be exempt from checks for three years. Meanwhile, Republicans, who usually argue on behalf of states' rights, defended their bill, which would override existing state laws on electronic background checks.
The bill was approved by the committee on a party-line 22-13 vote.
It would require all businesses to use E-Verify, a government-run program that uses Social Security numbers to check if job applicants are authorized to work in the U.S. E-Verify is voluntary under federal law, but the bill would mandate its use.
Backers said it is a jobs bill, which could push illegal immigrants out of the workforce and leave those openings for unemployed Americans and authorized immigrants.
"The Legal Workforce Act could open up millions of jobs for unemployed Americans by requiring employers to use E-Verify," said committee Chairman Lamar Smith, Texas Republican, who wrote the legislation. "It makes no sense to rely on the paper-based, error-prone I-9 system, when a successful, Web-based program is available."
Democratic opponents said they feared businesses would use the tool to discriminate against all Hispanic workers, and pointed to instances where the system erroneously has said American citizens weren't authorized to work.
Still, they said there is a place for electronic verification, but only after the current population of illegal immigrants has been granted legal status.
"The real dysfunction is trying to do E-Verify when there are 10-, 12-, 14 million people in this country who don't have work authorization," said Rep. Howard L. Berman, California Democrat, who led opposition to the bill. "You condemn E-Verify to failure when you try to do it in that context."
Major immigration legislation has stalled for years in Congress. The only issue that has moved has been border security, where there is near unanimity for adding more agents and technology.
But when it comes to interior enforcement, solutions to the illegal population already in the country, and future immigration, there is no consensus.
Democrats say all of those issues must be tackled at the same time, while Republicans argue that security should come first.
The E-Verify bill is part of the GOP's push.
Businesses currently use a paper-based system for verifying workers' eligibility. Employers are required to ask for a document, such as a Social Security card. But rampant identity theft and the ease of producing fraudulent documents have made that system a poor gateway.
More than a dozen states have mandated that some or all of their employers use E-Verify.
Mr. Smith's bill would invalidate those laws, which prompted Democrats to accuse Republicans of overriding states' rights.
"Until we step up and do the job, I don't think we should be pre-empting anybody trying to deal with this issue," Mr. Berman said.
Republicans, who have argued states such as Arizona should be allowed to enforce federal immigration laws, said in this case a uniform standard would be beneficial for businesses.
But in an overture to agriculture businesses, who rely heavily on illegal-immigrant labor, the bill Mr. Smith wrote would have allowed them to exempt returning seasonal workers from being checked.
Democrats and some Republicans said that amounted to an "amnesty" for illegal immigrants who already hold farm jobs and who could just keep returning year after year to those same jobs.
The two sides combined to strike that provision from the bill.
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