Congress will approve an immigration bill that will grant citizenship rights to most of the 12 million to 20 million illegal aliens in the U.S. after Democrats take control next month, predict both sides on Capitol Hill.
While Republicans have been largely splintered on the issue of immigration reform, Democrats have been fairly unified behind the principle that the illegals currently in the country should get citizenship rights without having to first leave the country.
“Years of dawdling have worsened our border security and made it harder to fix this broken system,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who will lead the Judiciary Committee next year. “We should not let partisan politics and intolerance continue to delay and derail effective reform.”
Democrats in both chambers say they will start with some form of legislation first drafted by Sens. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, which was the basis for the bill that was approved earlier this year by the Senate.
“This past May, the Senate Judiciary Committee reported and then the Senate passed bipartisan versions of comprehensive immigration reform to bring people out of the shadows while strengthening our borders,” Mr. Leahy said. “I look forward to building on that work next year and making progress on a bipartisan effort that improves security, supports our economy and respects the dignity of all people.”
House Republicans and many outside Congress derided that bill as “amnesty” for allowing illegals to remain in the U.S. and eventually become citizens. Democrats say it’s not amnesty because aliens must pay a fine and wait years before becoming citizens.
“The Senate bill is pure amnesty,” said Rep. Jack Kingston, Georgia Republican. “Dress it up any way you want, it’s still amnesty. It lets people pay their way out of sneaking into the country illegally.”
With President Bush as an ally in the White House, he worries, Democrats will proceed next year with legislation to ultimately make citizens out of most of the illegals now in the country. And Republicans, still reeling from deep losses in the November elections, will give up the fight.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican, said he expects an immigration-reform bill that doesn’t deport illegal aliens to be the only significant legislation to come out of the new Democratic Congress and win Mr. Bush’s approval.
“The only real legislation that can be expected from Congress is amnesty,” he said. “If they come up with a plan and the president is behind it, it will pick up a lot of our own members.”
Republicans also expressed little confidence that their leadership team is committed to blocking amnesty.
The group Americans for Better Immigration, which supports tougher immigration policies, has given Republican leaders mixed grades on the issue. But on the issue of amnesty, the grades have been much worse.
Rep. John A. Boehner of Ohio, the House Republican leader, has a “D”; Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the House Republican whip, scores a “C+.” Incoming House Republican Conference Chairman Adam H. Putnam of Florida, who has co-sponsored legislation that many view as amnesty, scores an “F-” from the group on the issue.
Still, Mr. Boehner and Mr. Blunt can claim credit for thwarting the Senate immigration bill earlier this year. But now the only hope, Republicans say, is that some of the conservative Democrats who beat Republican incumbents this year will side with conservatives in the House to block anything that smells like amnesty.
Rep. Tom Tancredo, the Colorado Republican and a leading critic of amnesty, was initially dejected by November’s elections, fearing that Democrats would ram through immigration reform. But a recent congressional trip with conservative-leaning “Blue Dog” Democrats changed his mind.
They don’t want to touch the issue, he said, after seeing fissures already develop among Democrats’ base voters on the issue. Illegal-alien advocacy groups think the Senate bill is too harsh on illegal aliens because it imposes fines on all and excludes others with criminal records. Those groups also insist future workers have a direct path to citizenship — a requirement that labor unions fiercely oppose.
“I think it’s going to be much more difficult for them to do than I had thought the day after the election,” Mr. Tancredo said.
Most likely, he said, Democrats will succeed at undoing plans to build 700 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border.
“The thing that’s in the greatest jeopardy right now is the fence, because they do have the appropriations process and that’s probably the one they can stop,” Mr. Tancredo said.
Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.