Thursday, May 25, 2006

6:20 p.m.

The Senate easily approved an immigration bill that allows 10 million illegal aliens to become citizens, more than doubles the flow of legal immigration each year and will cost U.S. taxpayers an estimated $54 billion over the next ten years.

Even before the early-evening vote, the leaders of both parties are hailing its passage as a historic success. The bill passed 62-36.

“We’ve taken a bill, and we’ve made it better,” said Majority Leader Bill Frist, the only member of the GOP leadership in the Senate to actually support the bill’s final passage. “We’ve taken a bill that the American people would have concluded was amnesty and by my lights, we took the amnesty out while we put the security in.”

As they prepared to vote, senators on both sides of the aisle tearfully congratulated one another and themselves for all their hard work in producing the legislation. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat and leading proponent of the bill, called it “the most far-reaching immigration reform in our history.”

Several Democrats facing re-election this year joined Republican conservatives in opposing the first major overhaul of the nation’s immigration system in twenty years. They said that the Senate is flatly ignoring clear public will and that the bill would have disastrous consequences for decades to come.

“We will never solve the problem of illegal immigration by rewarding those who break our laws,” Sen. Jim DeMint, South Carolina Republican, said. “We must stop illegal immigration by securing the border and creating a temporary worker program that does not reward illegal behavior with a clear path to citizenship and voting rights.”

Those who voted against the bill said it should have left out the “amnesty” provisions and instead focused solely on securing the border and enforcing the immigration laws that have been on the books for decades.

Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, the No. 3 Republican in the Senate, said the bill “puts the cart before the horse” because it grants citizenship rights to illegals, grants full-blown amnesty to employers and opens the borders to millions of new immigrants each year.

“The horse here, that I’ve been hearing from my constituents, is we need a border security bill first,” said Mr. Santorum, who spends much of his time campaigning for re-election this fall. “And we need a program that makes sure that our country’s borders are secure and that they are not a threat either to our national security or economic security.

The bill also includes approval for 350 miles of new fencing along the border, 500 miles of vehicle barriers and authorization of 3,000 new border patrol agents this year.

But conservatives in Congress like many voters are skeptical that the federal government will make good on promises to secure the border and enforce the laws. They suspect that immigration reform is headed for a repeat of the 1986 reforms that granted amnesty to 3 million aliens and promised to seal the border. But the laws were never enforced and three million illegals were replaced with some 12 million.

“The amnesty provisions and the fact that the enforcement provisions will not kick in immediately mean to me that this will not solve the illegal immigration problem,” Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, said today. “This will, in fact, make the illegal immigration problem much bigger.”

Sen. John Cornyn, the Texas Republican who opposes amnesty, said yesterday he has been amazed by the Senate’s inability to understand what voters clearly want.

“There seems to me to be a sense of surreality here, where people in the Senate just are not listening to what the American people are telling us,” he said. “We’ve tried, through the course of the amendments that have been offered that people standing here have offered, to highlight some of the problems that we have identified and which I believe are responsive to the concerns that we’ve heard from our constituents.”

Chief among them was an amendment by Sen. Johnny Isakson, Georgia Republican, that would have delayed implementation of the amnesty and “guest” worker provisions until after the Secretary of Homeland Security had certified that the border had been secured. The Senate killed that suggestion.

An amendment by Sen. John Ensign, Nevada Republican, would have barred illegal aliens from collecting Social Security benefits for past illegal work. The Senate rejected that proposal, even if the aliens had forged Social Security documents to get the employment.

And an amendment by Mr. Cornyn and Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona would have required that the 200,000 workers ushered into the country each year under the “guest” worker program be allowed to stay for only a set period of time rather than permanently. The Senate rejected that proposal as well.

Minority Leader Harry Reid pointed out that final legislation is far from complete. It now must go to negotiations with members of the House, which voted last year for a tougher bill that dealt only with border control and enforcement of immigration laws.

“We should all take note that dark clouds are forming on the horizon,” he said. “Influential Republicans in the House are still pushing the draconian bill they passed a bill that will make felons out of millions of immigrants and those who assist them.”

But it was House Democrats who thwarted the effort to remove the felony provisions from the House bill and leading House negotiators have since assured that they will ultimately strip out the felony language. But they are adamant that any final bill not include any amnesty provisions.

House Majority Leader John A. Boehner said yesterday he’s “hopeful” and a final agreement can be reached between the two chambers.

You can discuss this article over at the Insider’s Politics Blog

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