Thursday, March 9, 2006

Senate Democrats yesterday criticized efforts to make illegal entry into the United States a felony while their party’s 2008 presidential front-runner warned that Republicans want to turn the country into a “police state” to round up undocumented aliens.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, told a rally of immigrants on Capitol Hill that a Republican bill that passed the House in December will lead to a massive hunt for illegal aliens.

She said it would be “an unworkable scheme to try to deport 11 million people, which you have to have a police state to try to do,” she told the crowd of Irish immigrants.

Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee attacked a separate proposal by Sen. Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican and panel chairman, that would allow criminal prosecution of illegal aliens.

“I’m concerned that the chairman’s [proposal] would take the unprecedented step of criminalizing people in America based solely on their immigration status,” Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said yesterday on the first day of negotiations on a massive bill to deal with illegal entry.

He said 85 percent of the constituent work done by his Senate office pertains to immigrants who have fallen out of legal status for various reasons. For instance, Mr. Durbin suggested, someone on a student visa who doesn’t maintain the proper course load could be prosecuted.

Also, he argued, criminalizing illegal entry would make the job of law enforcement seeking illegal aliens more difficult.

“Criminalizing those out of status, sadly, would drive them further into the shadows, further away from the kind of disclosure which makes us a safer nation,” Mr. Durbin said. “It would make it a lot more difficult for law enforcement to police immigrant communities.”

The Judiciary Committee met on the immigration bill yesterday, but had trouble doing much business because there were rarely enough senators present to hold a vote.

Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican, said watering down immigration legislation over such concerns would render the final bill meaningless.

“It is always possible to create — and anybody who has been to law school knows this — a situation in which it’s very difficult to want to prosecute somebody because of the circumstances of the case,” he said. “It’s also possible to talk about 99 other situations in which you need to try to deal with breaking of the law because it leads to bad results.”

Roughly half the illegal aliens in the U.S. today are illegal because their status has expired or they have failed to comply with visa requirements, he said.

“And it isn’t all because they just accidentally fell one unit short of having enough courses that they’re taking in school,” Mr. Kyl said. “A lot of it is intentional, long-standing violation of our immigration laws.”

Currently, only civil penalties such as fines are levied against illegal aliens.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, worried that the penalties against those using falsified documents to get into the U.S. could harm refugees, making an analogy with European Jews fleeing Nazi persecution in the 1930s.

Mr. Kyl said lawmakers shouldn’t get so caught up on the exceptions that “tug at everybody’s heartstrings.”

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