Monday, September 17, 2007

Immigration politics could return to the Senate this week with a fight over granting illegal alien students a path to citizenship — the first in what is expected to be a series of skirmishes on the subject before Congress adjourns for the year.

But another battle, expected later this year over granting citizenship rights to illegal alien agriculture workers, may be less likely with the exit of Sen. Larry Craig, the Idaho Republican who was the chief Republican supporter but who announced his resignation weeks ago after being caught in a sex sting operation.

After the Senate resoundingly rejected President Bush‘s immigration bill earlier this year, senators promised to try to pass parts of it, and for a time, it appeared as though enforcement — better border security and workplace checks on employers — would see action. But instead, Democrats have pressed measures on the other side of the equation to legalize some groups of illegal aliens.

First up is the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which would apply to students, and which Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin plans to pursue as an amendment to the defense bill that will be debated this week.

The bill would grant legal status to illegal aliens who arrived here before the age of 16, have lived here at least five years, graduated high school and finished at least two years of college or military service.

“I have met these kids — young men and women. What a waste it would be to turn them away,” Mr. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said when he introduced the amendment earlier this summer.

Both proposals were part of Mr. Bush’s immigration bill, which failed when a majority of senators joined in a filibuster to block it, and part of last year’s Senate immigration proposal, which did pass the Senate but never saw action in the House.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, says the climate has shifted in favor of opponents since the Senate tried but failed to pass Mr. Bush’s bill.

“It became clear that all we were really doing was just ratifying an illegal system, and the American people did not like that,” he said. “As the debate crystallized, it became clear that this is an unprincipled approach.”

Mr. Sessions said the DREAM Act would legalize 1.3 million illegal aliens, while the agriculture-workers proposal would legalize 1.5 million illegal aliens here working at least part time in the agriculture industry and would allow them to bring in family members.

In late July, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada promised Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, that he would find floor time for the agriculture workers proposal.

Scott Gerber, a spokesman for Mrs. Feinstein, said she is considering attaching the proposal to the farm bill the Senate is scheduled to debate next month.

Even some senators who opposed the broad immigration bill earlier this year said they would be willing to support a pared down version of the agriculture bill if it streamlines the current agriculture guest-worker program, known as the H-2A visa program. But Mr. Sessions said he thinks that enough senators will block the proposal if it includes granting a path to citizenship to illegal aliens.

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