House OKs Border Bill Without a Guest Plan

Times Staff Writer

Ignoring President Bush’s call for a guest-worker program, the House passed legislation Friday that would tighten border security and impose new penalties on those who enter illegally and those who hire them.

The bill was approved, 239 to 182, despite opposition from most Democrats and some Republicans, who said that for the measure to be effective, it needed a plan to allow millions of illegal workers to temporarily legalize their status in the U.S.

The measure’s passage gives Republicans, who are struggling on other legislative fronts as Congress prepares to adjourn for several weeks, an accomplishment to take back to their districts and a chance to argue that Democrats refused to get tough on illegal immigration.

But debate on the bill also exposed deep fissures in the GOP over how to deal with the nation’s immigration problems, pitting those who want to legalize millions of workers against those who believe anyone who entered the United States illegally should be denied even temporary legal status.

The legislation’s fate in the Senate, which plans to take up immigration issues in February, is uncertain. Several senators from both parties have put forth plans for guest-worker programs, and the argument in that chamber seems centered on whether such a program should allow workers to earn citizenship.


One of the most controversial provisions of the House bill would make what is now a civil offense -- illegal presence in the United States -- a felony. Critics have objected that the measure would criminalize the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country.

The bill also would require every employer in the nation to check all workers’ legal status with the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce strongly opposes the provision, saying its six-year phase-in would not be long enough to implement such a massive program.

Another provision would authorize construction of about 700 miles of security fencing along the border with Mexico and let the secretary of Homeland Security study building a fence along the Canadian border.

The measure also would increase the penalties for smuggling people across the borders.

Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (D-Fla.) decried the lack of a guest-worker program, saying: “Basically, what we have here is enforcement, but none of the compassion that President Bush has been speaking about. We’re going to create fear and confusion.”

Bishop Gerald R. Barnes of San Bernardino, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, issued a statement opposing the bill, saying: “Behind these punitive provisions are people and families who will suffer needlessly. Immigrants -- even those without legal status -- are not criminals.”

But Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), who heads a group of several dozen lawmakers advocating a crackdown on illegal immigration, hailed the bill, saying: “It begins for the first time to actually deal with a problem in a comprehensive way.”

The legislation, Tancredo said, addresses the “supply side” of illegal immigration by authorizing a wall along the southwest border and the “demand side” by penalizing employers who hire illegal workers.

Bush has repeatedly called for an immigration bill that includes a temporary-worker program. Such a program, he has said, would give illegal immigrants an incentive to come forward and ensure that U.S. employers can find workers for jobs that many Americans are reluctant to fill.

But his public position has shifted as some Republicans’ opposition to guest-worker plans has mounted.

Recently, Bush has emphasized the need to beef up border security. On Thursday, the White House budget office issued a statement saying it strongly supported the House legislation.

The House Republican leadership tried to maintain party unity by restricting its immigration legislation to border security and law enforcement.

Still, the effort was nearly derailed Thursday. GOP leaders blocked a bid for a nonbinding resolution supporting a guest-worker program and refused demands by the anti-illegalimmigrant faction for debate on an amendment to ban automatic citizenship for U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants.

Supporters of a guest-worker program are now counting on the Senate to include a temporary-worker plan in the immigration package that Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has said the Senate will take up in February.

“We’re not so much making policy as making a statement here” that the nation’s laws must be enforced and that the flow of illegal immigrants must be staunched before any guest-worker program is created, said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), who advocated the nonbinding guest-worker resolution.

“The hope is that the Senate now will have a vehicle -- however flawed -- that they can attach a guest-worker program to,” Flake said.

Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Valley Village) said the House bill was “either an insult to our intelligence or a con on the American people” that would be transformed by the Senate into a bill with a guest-worker program or allowed to quietly die.

Berman strongly supports creating a guest-worker program that would include a path for eventual citizenship.

But Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) said a guest-worker program would reward those who entered the country illegally. “They come here for one reason: a job. A guest-worker plan that lets illegals keep their jobs is amnesty,” he said.

Three of the 17 Republicans who voted against the bill were from California: Devin Nunes of Visalia, George P. Radanovich of Mariposa and Bill Thomas of Bakersfield. None of the 36 Democrats who backed it were from California. Grace F. Napolitano (D-Norwalk) did not vote.