House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert said yesterday his chamber will work to produce an immigration bill this year, even as the White House signaled a new emphasis on immigration law enforcement as part of selling President Bush’s proposal.
The Illinois Republican placed immigration near the top of the list of priorities when Congress returns from its August recess, just below the must-pass spending bills and just before Social Security. He said any immigration bill must mix enforcement, a program for new foreign workers and a solution to the illegal aliens now here.
But Mr. Hastert sent mixed messages about how to address illegal aliens, saying amnesty is not the answer but acknowledging that some illegal aliens have been in the United States for decades.
“There has to be some accountability for those folks,” he said. “A lot of them have been here 20, 25 years, they’re integrated into the system, their children are American citizens, and quite frankly a lot of those people don’t have a home to go back to in another country, so we need to reconcile that. I’m not sure how we do that.”
Mr. Hastert also said, though, that “there are a lot of terms for how people get citizenship, but frankly what I have found, any time that you do an amnesty you just put people in the front of the line and cut out people who have come through the process legally.”
Unlike House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Mr. Hastert has not spoken often about immigration. His comments came at a briefing to discuss the House’s first seven months this year and its schedule for the fall.
In listing the schedule, Mr. Hastert put immigration right below finishing the appropriations bills, and he sounded more optimistic about it than he did about getting a Social Security bill.
“We are going to work on immigration. It’s going to take awhile,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot of hearings and a lot of discussion hopefully on a bipartisan basis to try to get that done.”
President Bush on Wednesday, in a closed-door meeting with House Republicans, called for action this year, but Mr. DeLay’s office said it was impossible to set an exact timetable.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican, would shepherd any bill through. A spokesman said yesterday that the committee plans to work on immigration legislation this fall and said all options are on the table.
Mr. Hastert has tapped Rep. John Shadegg, Arizona Republican, to meet with House Republicans who are interested in the immigration issue in order to try to forge a consensus on what should be in an eventual House bill.
Mr. Shadegg, who held his second “unity dinner” on the issue this week, said making a deadline of this year would be difficult, but not impossible.
He said one area of consensus is that a bill would have to include border enforcement and employer sanctions.
That message apparently has been received by the White House, which is now also saying Mr. Bush’s guest-worker plans should be paired with new enforcement measures.
“We want to continue to move forward in a way that improves our border security and enhances our enforcement inside the United States, and moves forward on a temporary worker program,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday.
That’s a marked difference from the White House’s earlier calls for action, which stressed the importance of a guest-worker program for U.S.-Mexico relations, as a humanitarian gesture and as a source of inexpensive labor for businesses. The administration also has said the guest-worker plan would allow U.S. Border Patrol agents to focus on catching terrorists and other illegal aliens.
Yesterday, though, immigration enforcement was foremost in the White House’s call for action.
“It’s critical that any reform address border security, enforcement and the economic reality of demand for willing workers,” Mr. McClellan said.
In recent meetings with White House officials, Republican leaders in Congress have said Congress must address immigration enforcement.
Mr. DeLay in particular has said Congress should first pass an enforcement-only bill to prove to the American people that the government is serious about the laws, and only then should it turn to a guest-worker program.