- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 13, 2002

The House, under pressure from President Bush to reach out to Hispanics, narrowly approved a bill last night that would grant amnesty to hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants.
The bill was approved 275-137, one vote more than the two-thirds majority needed under the special rules with which it was brought to the floor. Opponents credited a furious grass-roots campaign by immigration reform groups that nearly succeeded in defeating the measure.
"You have to believe that September 11 had something to do with it," Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican and leading opponent of the bill, said of the stronger than expected opposition. "The White House has got to be a little bit concerned about this."
Republican leaders coupled the measure, which would benefit foreigners who illegally entered the United States or overstayed their visas, with a provision to beef up border security that had stalled in the Senate. The tactic infuriated opponents of the amnesty measure.
"It's underhanded," Mr. Tancredo said. "It's not about border security."
Mr. Bush, whose advisers are promoting an aggressive strategy of courting Hispanic voters, lobbied congressional leaders last week on the immigration bill. Republican sources said Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas had reservations, but told the president he would not actively oppose the measure and that it would be the only immigration bill to move in the House this year.
Asked about the measure yesterday, Mr. DeLay said only, "The president says he needs it, and we're going to do it."
Said a Republican aide, "That's the only reason we're doing it. What the president wants, the president gets."
The bill had been scheduled for a vote on September 11, but the terrorist attacks caused House leaders to put off the action for several months. Republican leaders placed the matter on the "suspension" calendar, usually reserved for inconsequential legislation requiring a two-thirds majority for passage.
Many bills on that calendar are approved by voice vote only, although opponents in this case have asked for and received a recorded vote. The issue generated an outpouring of criticism. Mr. Tancredo's office reported a "huge" increase in phone calls yesterday.
Rep. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who voted no, said a deluge of phone calls and e-mail messages from groups such as Numbers U.S.A., an immigration reform group based in Washington, persuaded many members to vote against the amnesty bill.
"There are a lot of groups out there that are not pleased with what they see as loose-kneed immigration rules," Mr. Flake said. "After September 11, we ought to scrutinize [immigration rules] a little better than we have in the past."
Several conservative House Republicans attacked the measure as a politically expedient gesture to lawbreakers.
"We're a nation at war," said Rep. J.D. Hayworth, Arizona Republican. "To move forward with this in wartime … sends the wrong message, especially to those who try to play by the rules."
Mauro Mujica, chairman of the advocacy group U.S. English that promotes learning English, said he was "ashamed" of the bill.
Mr. Mujica said the bill sends this message: "Illegal Mexicans, come one, come all. You take precedent over any other nationality. Come to America and jump the line by breaking the law."
Mr. Tancredo said Mr. Bush wanted the bill approved before his visit to Mexico next week for a meeting with President Vicente Fox.
"Fox needs this to bolster his own sagging support in his congress," Mr. Tancredo said.
Mr. Bush "believes it's good politics for him. He's the president of our own party, and it's not easy to go against him," Mr. Tancredo said.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Texas Republican, said the bill will help immigrant families stay together in the United States while the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) completes their paperwork.
"The president is saying it's not right to make people be separate from their families and go through this extra hardship because the agency doesn't keep pace with its workload," Mr. Armey said.
The bill provides a temporary extension to a program that allows some noncitizens to stay in the United States while their residency applications are processed. The program, requiring each noncitizen to pay a $1,000 penalty to remain in the country, expired in April 2001.
Mr. Hayworth said if the bill becomes law, "every one of those $1,000 payments should go to strengthening our borders."
Democrats favor a permanent extension of the program, but House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri said he supports this bill because it recognizes "the important contributions that hardworking immigrants have made and continue to make to our national prosperity."
The House originally approved the bill on May 21 by a vote of 336-43. The Senate approved its own version on Sept. 6 and sent it back to the House.
The border-security measure would authorize $150 million for the Customs Service and another $150 million for the INS to upgrade security technology to monitor border crossings. It also would tighten security at the nation's ports.
Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat and chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, has objected to the border-security measure as too expensive to be approved without thorough debate. He demanded the ability to amend the measure, and Republicans hoped to ease its passage in the Senate by attaching the immigration bill.
An administration official said the strategy was "our best shot to get both things done."


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