- The Washington Times - Friday, April 1, 2005

The Senate is bracing for its first fight over amnesty for illegal immigrants in nearly 10 years after the chamber’s parliamentarian ruled that a debate over granting legal status to illegal agriculture workers will be allowed on the pending emergency spending bill.

The $81 billion spending bill covers costs associated with the war on terror, and the House already passed a version with provisions restricting asylum claims and cracking down on illegal immigrants’ ability to use driver’s licenses. The parliamentarian said those provisions open the door for Sen. Larry E. Craig, Idaho Republican, to offer as an amendment his bill, commonly called “Ag-jobs,” to legalize the 500,000 to 1 million illegal immigrants now working in the agriculture industry.

“With the parliamentarian’s approval it’s looking more and more likely we’ll offer Ag-jobs as an amendment,” Craig spokesman Sidney Smith said. “That decision isn’t set in concrete, but it’s starting to shape up that way.”

The spending bill will be before the Senate Appropriations Committee on Wednesday, though Mr. Smith said that if Mr. Craig offers his amendment, it will be during the floor debate. But Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, chairman of the Judiciary immigration subcommittee, is opposed to the bill and says it will not pass.

“Not if Senator Cornyn has anything to do with it,” spokesman Don Stewart said of the bill’s chances. “Ag-jobs is an amnesty bill, and the president’s not going to sign it. Second of all, it’s not a comprehensive [immigration] bill, and it would slow momentum for getting a comprehensive bill.”

The measure would allow any agricultural worker who is in the United States illegally and who has worked 100 days out of a year, during the 18 months prior to Jan. 1, 2005, to gain legal status.

“We want to stabilize the current agriculture work force — workers who are trusted, who are already on the job, who are already putting food on our tables,” said Damon Tobias, Mr. Craig’s legislative aide on immigration. “We think it makes more sense to allow them to earn legal status than to try to replace a large part of the agriculture work force.”

Although there have been votes on security issues, and the Senate recently passed a nonbinding amendment to the budget to add 2,000 Border Patrol agents in fiscal year 2006, Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, said Mr. Craig’s amendment would be the first broad fight over illegal immigration in some time.

“The Senate has not had any real roll-call votes on whether to get tough on or reward illegal aliens since 1996, so this will be a defining moment,” said Mr. Beck, whose group lobbies for stricter immigration controls. “A lot of these senators’ constituents don’t really know whether they favor illegal immigrants or oppose illegal immigrants.”

Both congressional aides and lobbying sources said the Bush administration would prefer to see a comprehensive bill pass rather than Mr. Craig’s bill, and Mr. Cornyn has begun a series of hearings aimed at producing such a broad bill later this year — something Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, also would have preferred.

“Our preference would be to have this debate on some other vehicle, but if there’s going to be a debate on immigration, we want all aspects of the debate to be included,” spokesman Bob Stevenson said.

Mr. Craig’s office says his bill isn’t amnesty. “It’s not; it’s rehabilitation,” Mr. Tobias said.

He said the bill would apply to 500,000 workers and another 200,000 to 300,000 spouses and children. Opponents say it would apply to 1 million workers and 2 million spouses and children.

Mr. Craig’s measure, which achieved 62 co-sponsors in the last Congress, has only 43 this year.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, Utah Republican, had signed on, but has since withdrawn his name as a sponsor. His spokesman said the real question was why his name was ever part of the measure. “He was never a sponsor this year. It was mistake on somebody’s part,” said Adam Elggren, though he could not say what changed from last year, when Mr. Hatch also was listed as a sponsor.

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