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GOP Bill Ignores Bush’s Guest-Worker Plan

Times Staff Writer

A key lawmaker unveiled legislation Tuesday that underscored the differences between President Bush and many House Republicans over how to fix the nation’s troubled immigration system.

Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said his bill would tighten border security, require all businesses to verify that their employees are in the U.S. legally and increase penalties for those using illegal workers.

The White House supports those moves. But Sensenbrenner’s measure ignores Bush’s repeated call for creating a guest-worker program that would temporarily legalize the status of millions of workers who are in the nation illegally.

Bush has said a guest-worker program is the best way to persuade illegal workers to step forward while ensuring a steady labor supply for U.S. businesses that rely on them.

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But a vocal minority of House Republicans opposes any guest-worker program as a type of amnesty that they say would only encourage more people to enter this country illegally.

Sensenbrenner said he supported a guest-worker program but left it out of his bill because the House could not reach a consensus over the details of such a plan.

The House Republican leadership plans to bring the measure to a vote next week, before Congress recesses for the holidays. It is expected to pass, although many Democrats may vote against it.

“Everyone recognizes our current immigration system is broken,” Sensenbrenner said in a statement. “I anticipate this legislation will serve as a solid legislative foundation for tackling problems with our immigration system.”

The bill’s centerpiece is a provision that would require employers to verify the legal status of all employees by checking with the Social Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security by phone or computer. It would expand a voluntary pilot program that has been in place since 1996 that gives employers three days after hiring workers to check their status with those agencies.

The measure would increase the $250 minimum penalty an employer pays for knowingly hiring an illegal worker to a minimum of $5,000.

It also would reimburse local law enforcement agencies in 29 counties along the U.S.-Mexico border for the costs of apprehending illegal immigrants.

“It would end the job magnet” attracting illegal workers to the U.S., said a House Judiciary Committee staff member, who briefed reporters on the bill’s provisions on the condition of anonymity.

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Some analysts saw Sensenbrenner’s measure as the first step in a complex White House strategy intended to secure the sort of comprehensive reform Bush is seeking without splitting the party over the politically sensitive issue of immigration.

“This has been in the works for a while now -- that the House would come up with an enforcement-only bill despite the president’s expressed desire to do something different,” said Tamar Jacoby, an analyst at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. “This is the first step in a bigger process.”

House Republicans, who have been plagued by ethics scandals and disagreements over tax cuts, hurricane reconstruction efforts, deficit spending and other issues, are determined to end the year on an upbeat note, Jacoby said.

They hope to do so by rallying around Sensenbrenner’s bill, which they expect to play well with constituents alarmed by what they consider the nation’s failure to control its borders.

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Debate on the bill, however, could become contentious among Republicans.

Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), leader of GOP House members who oppose guest-worker programs, told acting Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) that he intended to push for dozens of amendments -- many of them controversial -- when the bill comes to the floor Dec. 15.

One measure would authorize the start of construction of a security wall along the entire length of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Another would eliminate birth-right citizenship for children born in the U.S. to illegal immigrants.

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House GOP leaders worry that the proposals would split the party and alienate Latino voters.

Blunt said Tuesday that he did not know how many of Tancredo’s amendments the House Rules Committee would allow to come to the floor.

Though Blunt said there was a “growing debate in the country” over the policy of granting citizenship to anyone born in this country, he did not know whether the House was prepared to take up the subject next week.

Bush’s hopes for creating a guest-worker program rest with the Senate, which is expected to take up immigration reform in February. Several senators have put forward guest-worker proposals that they say they will attempt to attach to any legislation beefing up border security.

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One plan by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) would require illegal workers to return to their native countries and apply from there for a job in the United States. It would offer them only temporary visas and no path to citizenship.

Another measure, sponsored by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) would allow workers now here who met certain criteria to pay a fine and gain permanent residency.

Randy Johnson, vice president for labor and immigration at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the group disliked the provision in Sensenbrenner’s bill that would require employers to verify the citizenship status of their employees. But he said he was optimistic that the Senate would pass immigration legislation that included a guest-worker program.

“The business community knew that a computer employer-verification system was coming down the pike,” Johnson said. “However, our view is it should be included as part of a more comprehensive reform legislation which takes on all the issues.”

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