A Call to Shed ‘Poison Pill’ Immigration Rule

Times Staff Writer

Republican leaders in the House and the Senate called Tuesday for removing a provision in the House-passed immigration bill that would make it a felony for a foreign national to be in the United States without a valid visa and blamed Democrats for the inclusion of the controversial language.

The written statement from House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee did not represent a change in position for the Republican leadership, which supports making the offense a misdemeanor.

Democrats “voted to make felons out of all of those who remain in our country illegally,” the leaders wrote. “It remains our intent to produce a strong border security bill that will not make unlawful presence in the United States a felony.”


The GOP leaders issued the statement in the face of intense opposition in the Latino community over the tougher penalty -- among the most controversial parts of legislation designed to curb illegal immigration and make it more difficult for undocumented workers to live in this country.

The felony provision was a focus of nationwide protests against the House bill, beginning late last month in Los Angeles and continuing through Monday.

At a time of intense Republican sensitivity on immigration-related matters, the statement represented an attempt to deflect some public criticism of the House bill onto Democrats.

“Both leaderships want to make it clear that Democrats are the problem and what the outcome will be as part of a broad and balanced border security bill once [Democratic leader] Sen. [Harry] Reid allows a fair process and we go to conference,” said Eric Ueland, Frist’s chief of staff.

At issue is a bill passed by the House in December aimed at strengthening border security and cracking down on smugglers. Critics say several provisions, including one making it a felony to assist illegal immigrants to “reside in or remain” in the United States, could be used to prosecute anyone who offers humanitarian aid -- including medical care -- to undocumented immigrants.

The bill, drafted by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), House Judiciary Committee chairman, also would make it a felony for a foreign national to be in the United States without a visa. That provision was designed to equalize penalties for people who enter the country illegally and those who enter legally but stay past their visa’s expiration date.

However, before the House approved the legislation, Sensenbrenner offered an amendment that would have reduced the infraction from a felony to a misdemeanor. At the time he said he was making the change at the request of the Bush administration to ease court procedures: A felony would require a grand jury indictment, a jury trial and give the defendant the right to a public defender, but a misdemeanor would not.

The amendment failed, with 164 votes supporting it and 257 opposed. Of those voting against it, 191 were Democrats and 65 were Republicans.

In their statement Tuesday, Hastert and Frist cited the vote, accusing Democrats of opposing the Sensenbrenner amendment because of a “lack of compassion.”

“There were 191 House Democrats who voted to oppose House Republican efforts to reduce the crime of unlawful presence in the United States from a felony to a misdemeanor,” Hastert and Frist said. “Instead, they voted to make felons out of all those who remain in our country illegally.”

Democrats said they voted against the Sensenbrenner amendment for strategic reasons.

“From a strategic point of view, Democrats were not going to help Republicans pass the bad Sensenbrenner bill,” said Jennifer Crider, spokeswoman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). “With the felony provision in there, it is a poison pill, as we’ve seen from all the rallies around the country.”

Crider said that Republicans were the majority party in the House, and if they truly wanted to change the House bill, they could have.

“The bottom line is that 65 Republicans voted for that provision, and the rest voted for that provision when they voted for the final bill,” she said.

Republicans have expressed frustration in recent days with public debate over the legislation, which they say is being unfairly maligned by critics.

“I think there’s a misconception among a lot of folks that efforts to get at alien smuggling groups are somehow aimed at humanitarian groups,” a GOP staffer said on condition he not be further identified. “It should be a pretty nonconfrontational goal dealing with alien smuggling.”