Thursday, March 30, 2006

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said yesterday that the Senate likely will pass a version of immigration reform that includes more than the border-security overhaul he has proposed.

“It’s critical that the Senate address comprehensive immigration legislation including both border security and economic provisions,” he said in a reference to a guest-worker program that President Bush has called for, but which conservatives and House Republicans adamantly oppose until border security has been enhanced and current immigration laws have been enforced.

“The enforcement provisions included in both my bill and the Judiciary Committee’s bill are a step in that process,” he said in a prepared statement before officially beginning floor debate on the explosive issue. “I fully expect that the final bill will be a comprehensive approach to border security and immigration reform.”

But Mr. Frist — who is widely expected to run for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination — later distanced himself from the bill finished this week by the Senate Judiciary Committee. That proposal would fine illegals but let them remain in the U.S. while they apply for full citizenship.

That bill “goes too far in granting illegal immigrants with what most Americans will see as amnesty,” he said on the Senate floor. “I disagree with this approach not just as a matter of principle but because granting amnesty now will only encourage future and further disrespect for the law. It will undermine our efforts to secure our homeland.”

Previously, Mr. Frist has maintained that the Senate would take up a bill dealing only with border security but left open the possibility that a guest-worker program of some sort might get added later through amendments. His statements yesterday were the clearest yet about what he expects the Senate to ultimately produce.

Whatever the Senate produces must then be hammered out with House Republicans, who last year approved a border-security bill that has no guest-worker provisions and doesn’t deal with the estimated 11 million to 12 million illegals already in the country.

While the Senate is technically debating Mr. Frist’s border-security-only bill, Republican leaders say that will be swapped out with the committee’s bill that includes a guest-worker program and angers conservatives for containing provisions they call “amnesty.”

Many senators still have many questions about the committee’s bill, however, since it still hasn’t been committed to paper. The Judiciary Committee sped through the bill so quickly Monday that the massive legislation was largely pieced together verbally.

“There will be passionate arguments, that is certainly true,” Committee Chairman Arlen Specter said yesterday. “Emotionalism runs very high on these issues. Some say that we are a nation defined by the rule of law and that has been flagrantly violated by 11 million people who have come to this country without conforming to United States law. And at the same time, we pride ourselves on being a compassionate nation.”

One thing everyone seemed to agree upon was that the immigration system is broken.

“We have ignored the tough conditions endured by the undocumented, and the harmful ripple effects undocumented employment has on some U.S. workers,” Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, said yesterday.

Past fixes by Congress, he said, were “well-intentioned,” but ended — as many conservatives say of today’s legislation — predictably. “By ending legal migration, but allowing employers to bid for immigrant labor, Congress all but guaranteed a generation of undocumented immigrants would emerge,” Mr. Kennedy said.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Alabama Republican who voted against the proposal in the Judiciary Committee, said the Senate was at a historic crossroads to fix once and for all the country’s immigration system.

“The system as it operates today makes a mockery of law and we all know that,” he said. “It rewards bad behavior. It places bureaucratic hurdles and delays in front of those who want to do the right thing about coming here.”

There were poignant moments, too, as yesterday’s debate was an opportunity for senators to discuss their own roots as immigrants.

“My own family is exhibit A,” said Mr. Specter, a Republican from Pennsylvania. “My father came to this country in 1911 when he was 18 because the czar wanted to send him to Siberia. He preferred Pennsylvania, so he came to the United States.”

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