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GOP Senators Try to Unite on Immigration Overhaul

Times Staff Writer

In an indication that the Republican Party is moving to address its deep divisions over immigration, GOP senators behind two competing bills announced Tuesday that they would work together to draft legislation that emphasized border security, but also tackled the difficult issue of illegal immigrants.

Sens. John McCain of Arizona and John Cornyn of Texas stood alongside Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee to outline a staggered approach to changes, starting early next year. It will focus first on enforcement and then address a guest worker program, they said.

McCain and Cornyn emphasized that the goal remained an across-the-board overhaul, even as they acknowledged the challenge ahead. “It’s not going to be easy,” Cornyn said. “We all agree that comprehensive immigration reform is the way to go. You can’t fix a piece of this and claim victory.”

Frist said that Congress had made progress with the recently passed Department of Homeland Security appropriations bill, which provides greater funding for border patrol operations, beds in detention centers and technology to boost border security.

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“We’ve agreed to come back very early next year to address the issue of comprehensive immigration reform, but to do it in a way that begins with border security that would add enforcement ... and then build out from there,” Frist said.

The announcement came hours after Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who is considering a presidential run in 2008, unveiled his own immigration bill -- a week after President Bush offered more detail on his vision for revamping immigration.

The president endorses bolstered border security alongside a guest worker program that does not lead to citizenship. That policy stance may be an effort to ease tensions within the GOP that are reflected in the separate immigration bills by McCain and Cornyn.

Cornyn and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) have written a bill that puts strong emphasis on enforcement and requires illegal aliens to return to their home countries to apply for a guest worker program. It does not offer a route to citizenship.

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The legislation sponsored by McCain and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) allows immigrants to stay for up to six years and provides a way for those who meet specific criteria to apply for permanent resident status.

McCain acknowledged the distance between those two visions, even as he spoke of their similarities. “There is 90% agreement between Kyl-Cornyn and McCain-Kennedy,” McCain said. The remaining “10% is huge ... but the American people want us to act.”

Frist outlined a schedule in which the Senate would start with border enforcement, then move to discussion of a guest worker program before focusing on what McCain called “the fundamental question” -- the estimated 11 million people now here illegally. McCain said there would be one final bill, but added a caveat: “That can change.”

“I’m opposed to separate bills because you can’t address the question of guest workers without dealing with border security,” McCain said.

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House Republican leaders have said that their approach to immigration will start with border security. Since midsummer, GOP House members have held dinner discussions to foster common ground on immigration, focusing on border, interior and employer enforcement as well as undocumented workers.

The Frist announcement of an enforcement-first approach may be an effort to appeal to the House, but the issue of what to do with illegal aliens will likely be the greatest stumbling block to compromise, both in the House and Senate.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) underscored the disconnect in his response to Frist’s announcement.

“We ought to respond to the concerns of the American people and improve border security before we implement foreign worker programs that might legalize millions of illegal immigrants,” Smith said.

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McCain and others have said that illegal immigrants are unlikely to risk what they have to register for a guest worker program that does not offer the incentive of legal status. But Cornyn emphasized his unwillingness to consider anything that provides a path to citizenship. “I will not support and I don’t think the American people will support an amnesty,” he said.

Hagel’s immigration package comprises four separate bills, two of which deal with enforcement, and allows illegal immigrants to apply for permanent residency.

“A pathway to legal status is the only way to make this work,” Hagel said. The four-part structure of the bill was intended to create a “consensus of purpose, a foundation” for his colleagues to work with, he said.


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