Thursday, March 1, 2007

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s secret work on an immigration bill threatens the chance of passing any guest-worker program this year, warned Sen. Arlen Specter, the top Republican on the Judiciary Committee.

“If you want to be in at the landing, you have to be in at the takeoff,” Mr. Specter of Pennsylvania yesterday cautioned Mr. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, and Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, saying Mr. Kennedy has broken a promise to consult with other senators’ staffs on a new bill. That bill, details of which were first reported by The Washington Times, would grant citizenship rights to most illegal aliens already in the U.S.

President Bush dispatched two Cabinet secretaries to testify to the Judiciary Committee yesterday as the Senate restarted the immigration debate, which stalled last year because of a deep split among Republicans on the issue.

But Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez undercut Mr. Bush’s own rationale for supporting citizenship rights for illegal aliens. Mr. Gutierrez said a temporary-worker program alone would be enough to encourage illegal aliens to come forward, even without the prospect of citizenship.

“I don’t think that citizenship is what will make them come out of the shadows, it’s just the opportunity to have legal status so they don’t have to be in the shadows,” Mr. Gutierrez said.

Mr. Specter’s warning and Mr. Gutierrez’s comments underscore how even with a Democratic majority, which is in line with Mr. Bush on immigration, Congress will struggle to pass a bill this year.

The Senate last year passed a bill that created a path to citizenship for illegal aliens for those who have lived here the longest, while denying it to recent arrivals. It also boosted homeland security and created a new foreign worker program that included a path to citizenship for future workers.

That had the support of Mr. Bush, who called it “a good immigration bill.”

But House Republicans said it amounted to an amnesty for most illegal aliens, and they refused to bring it up, instead forcing the Senate to pass an enforcement bill that includes building hundreds of miles of double-tier fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick V. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, called the barrier a “Potemkin fence” and said the money would be “wasted” in building it.

Yesterday, he and other senators bristled at the “amnesty” label. Some of them pleaded with the secretaries to help them come up with a way to avoid the label.

“This amnesty question will dominate this debate,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, who supports citizenship rights for most illegal aliens.

Even as Mr. Kennedy and Mr. McCain work in private, they appear to have lost one key Democratic supporter. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, said that bill was too broad, that the guest-worker program for future workers was too big and that splitting illegal aliens based on their time here was too open to fraud.

“I am now of the opinion that we may have reached too far in the comprehensive bill and that we ought to take a look at doing this” in stages, she said.

Three years after Mr. Bush proposed his own guest-worker plan — at the time it included a temporary guest-worker program but not a path to citizenship for illegal aliens — the administration still does not have specifics on cost or even how long it would take to get a program up and running.

Under questioning by Mr. Kennedy, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff could not say how much time it would take to create and issue tamperproof identity cards or create the infrastructure for businesses to check on workers’ identities. But Mr. Chertoff said the administration has made big strides on immigration law enforcement.

“I want to emphasize we’re not done, but we’re moving in the right direction,” he said. “I think it’s beginning to earn some credibility with the public.”

Also at yesterday’s hearing, Mr. Chertoff said the federal government will insist that states adopt secure driver’s licenses that can weed out illegal aliens and identity fraud, turning back moves by several states to opt out of the requirements of the Real ID Act.

“Secure driver’s licenses was maybe the top recommendation made by the 9/11 commission. It’s not only critical for national security and homeland security; it also happens to be a very big step forward in protecting privacy,” he said.

Mr. Chertoff also said he expects today to announce the rules to implement the 2005 law.

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