House Republican leaders reversed course on one of their most controversial immigration reform proposals Thursday, dropping plans to force border-state employers to verify the work status of new hires and instead creating a voluntary program until problems can be worked out.
The last-minute change would remove an especially divisive element from the bill just before it goes to the full House for a vote the week of March 18. But backers of an immediate worker verification system--especially Californians--cried foul.
"I'm going to be on the floor raising holy hell," said Rep. Brian P. Bilbray (R-San Diego). So furious was Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) that he hinted he might withdraw his support for a bill he had co-sponsored and worked aggressively to promote.
"If this bill should be gutted because of pressure from special interests, then I will be forced to find another way to go," said Gallegly, chairman of the GOP task force on immigration reform. "I'm going to fight this to the end. I will not support a mamby-pamby, smoke-and-mirrors piece of legislation."
The open dissent indicates just how deep the fissures have grown among Republicans on the immigration issue.
Under pressure from business interests, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who chairs the House Judiciary immigration and claims subcommittee, agreed Thursday to tone down the bill in an effort to keep its support solid. Instead of a program that would force employers in California and four other high-immigration states to verify the work status of new hires by telephone, the bill would allow employers nationwide to join the program voluntarily.
But without a mandatory program, some lawmakers said, the bill would not end the employment of illegal immigrants.
"The bottom line is I want a bill that does something," Gallegly said.
He pointed to Congress' last major stab at immigration reform in 1986, when lawmakers made it illegal for employers to hire illegal immigrants but did not set up an effective enforcement plan. Due to the wide availability of fraudulent documents, it is difficult to prove that an employer is knowingly breaking the law.
There is wide agreement among Democrats and Republicans that the country needs some form of worker verification using the databases of the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Social Security Administration. But President Clinton and others have pushed for years of additional testing of a voluntary plan before a mandatory system is adopted. They have said that all glitches must be worked out before a system can be set up to handle tens of millions of transactions.
Gallegly and others want to plunge into a system now; they argue that the technology is already used at cash registers to check on the validity of credit cards.
Opposing worker verification are a coalition of business groups, civil libertarians and others. They consider it another mandate on the backs of business and a major invasion by the government into private lives.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) is the leading opponent, arguing that the proposal would chip away at individual liberties and could lead to a national identification system.
On Thursday, Smith sprang the news that, in an effort to save the rest of the bill, he was backing away from the verification scheme adopted by the House Judiciary Committee.
"A number of members have expressed concern about what they think is another mandate on employers," Smith said. "In an effort to respond to their concerns, a voluntary confirmation program with strong incentives to participate will likely be pursued."
Throughout creation of the bill, Smith has been willing to compromise. In committee, he backed an amendment that changed worker verification from a mandatory nationwide program to a three-year pilot project in five high-immigration states, including California.
Times staff writer James Bornemeier contributed to this story.