Thursday, December 15, 2005

The House Judiciary Committee chairman yesterday backed off his provision to make illegal aliens felons and instead proposed a misdemeanor charge for unlawful presence, angering some Republicans who wanted the higher penalty.

The House is expected to vote today on a border enforcement and employee work verification bill, which calls for more U.S. Border Patrol agents, mandatory database checks of employees’ eligibility to work, expanding expedited removal of illegal aliens and allowing sheriffs along the border to help enforce immigration law.

Some Republicans already were threatening to try to block the bill if they didn’t get a chance to vote on amendments such as ending birthright citizenship and allowing local authorities to aid federal immigration officials. Yesterday’s change just fueled their determination.

Initially the bill made felons out of the estimated 11 million illegal aliens, thus making them ineligible for legalization. But yesterday the bill’s chief sponsor, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican and Judiciary Committee chairman, said he will amend the bill today to make it a misdemeanor.

His spokesman, Jeff Lungren, said the felony requirement actually would have delayed deportation of those now here illegally, while the lesser charge speeds it up.

“In order to get a conviction on a felony, you’d need a jury trial,” he said. “A misdemeanor doesn’t need a jury trial, but you can detain them while putting them through immigration proceedings.”

He said a misdemeanor still accomplishes their goal, which he said was to target those who overstay their temporary visas. Under current law, overstaying a visa is a civil offense but not a criminal offense, and if caught an alien can delay deportation for years by demanding a trial.

Overstays account for about 40 percent of illegal aliens in the country.

The change caught supporters, opponents, and apparently Mr. Sensenbrenner himself by surprise. During a meeting of the House Rules Committee, which was setting the rules for today’s debate and deciding which amendments will get floor votes, Mr. Sensenbrenner repeatedly said the bill makes unlawful presence a felony.

That went too far for some members of the committee, including those who had intended to support the bill.

“As far as I’m concerned, the wheels just came off the bus. No one believes we’re going to arrest 11 million people,” said Rep. Adam H. Putnam, Florida Republican.

Later one of Mr. Sensenbrenner’s aides, who wasn’t present during the questioning, came into the room and took Mr. Putnam aside. Afterward Mr. Putnam announced that Mr. Sensenbrenner had actually submitted an amendment on Tuesday that reduced the charge.

Democrats said Mr. Sensenbrenner’s inability to explain the bill before the committee and the later announcement of the change were indications the bill is not well thought out.

“We could go home with egg on our face from this one for the rest of this century,” said Rep. Louise M. Slaughter, New York Democrat.

But Republicans who support the bill were shocked when they heard about the change during the committee meeting.

“That’s what the look of surprise is on my face,” said Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican, who said only a felony charge would get illegal border-crossers entered into a law-enforcement database. It also takes three misdemeanors, but only one felony, for someone to be temporarily barred from re-entry.

Republican leaders are calling the bill a workplace and border enforcement measure.

Democrats and a few Republicans said the bill falls short because it doesn’t offer a path to citizenship for current illegal aliens. They demanded a chance to offer an amendment granting legal status to illegal aliens.

Many other Republicans, meanwhile, said the bill falls short because it is weak on enforcement. They are demanding the chance to pass amendments that would end birthright citizenship for children of illegal aliens born on U.S. soil; build a barrier system along the border; and allow local law-enforcement authorities across the country to aid federal immigration officials.

Both sides were threatening to vote against the debate rules if their amendments weren’t allowed. If they joined forces, Republicans who want more enforcement combined with the Democrats and Republicans who want legalization could be enough to defeat the debate rules, which would block the entire bill.

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