Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Any immigration legislation passed by Congress this year will not include the inflammatory provisions approved by the House last year that make it a felony to be in the United States illegally, Republican leaders on Capitol Hill said yesterday.

House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said in a joint statement that “it remains our intent to produce a strong border security bill that will not make unlawful presence in the United States a felony.” The commitment removes a primary concern held by many Democrats who say that the yearlong imprisonment carried by a felony conviction is too harsh.

House Republicans also said yesterday they are committed to rewriting a section of their immigration bill that caused an uproar among religious and humanitarian leaders who say the law could be used to prosecute them if they unwittingly give food or shelter to someone who turns out to be an illegal alien.

Since the House passed its bill in December, Democrats have seized upon the criticism as another reason for opposing the border security legislation.

“It is certainly not in keeping with my understanding of the Scriptures, because this bill would literally criminalize the good Samaritan and probably even Jesus himself,” Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, said last month.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Wisconsin Republican, said the provision is aimed at the ruthless “coyotes” and “snake-heads” who smuggle people into the country.

“Since the House bill’s passage, many have misconstrued the House’s good-faith effort to bring human traffickers to justice as a way to criminalize humanitarian assistance efforts,” Mr. Sensenbrenner and other Republican leaders wrote in a letter to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “The House bill does no such thing, nor did it intend to.”

Under current law, it is illegal to transport, harbor or conceal aliens and to encourage or induce them to remain in the United States. House Judiciary Republicans say courts have interpreted these laws broadly to mean “help or advise,” and yet they have never been used to prosecute humanitarians.

“We can assure you, just as under current law, religious organizations would not have to ‘card’ people at soup kitchens and homeless shelters under the House bill’s anti-smuggling provisions,” Mr. Sensenbrenner wrote. “Prosecutors would no sooner prosecute good Samaritans for ‘assisting’ illegal immigrants to remain in the U.S. under the House bill than they would prosecute such persons for ‘encouraging’ illegal immigrants to remain in the U.S. under current law.”

At the request of U.S. attorneys along the border who prosecute human smugglers, the House bill makes culpable anyone who “assists, encourages, directs or induces a person to reside in or remain in the United States.” Still, Mr. Sensenbrenner said he stands ready to revise his bill so humanitarians aren’t “ensnared in this moral effort to end suffering at the hands of human traffickers.”

Already, House Republicans have tried revising their bill to reduce the felony penalty for simply being in the United States illegally. But that effort was thwarted by Democrats intent on killing the entire bill.

In December, Mr. Sensenbrenner introduced an amendment to the immigration bill to make unlawful presence a misdemeanor instead of a felony. All but 11 Democrats voted to kill the amendment.

“There were 191 House Democrats who voted to oppose House Republican efforts to reduce the crime of unlawful presence in the United States from a felony to a misdemeanor,” Mr. Hastert and Mr. Frist said yesterday in their joint statement. “Instead, they voted to make felons out of all of those who remain in our country illegally.”

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