A 2004 Call for Overhaul Set Showdown in Motion

Times Staff Writer

The nation's immigration policies are a hot topic both in Congress and around the country. Following are some frequently asked questions.


Question: What sparked the current furor over immigration laws?

Answer: Early in 2004, President Bush called for a general overhaul of the U.S. immigration system. Speaking of "millions of hardworking men and women condemned to fear and insecurity in a massive, undocumented economy," Bush urged Congress to rewrite the laws to allow the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants to gain legal status "as temporary workers." This would allow the U.S. to draw people out of the shadows and improve security, Bush argued. Then, as now, Bush stressed four other elements of an overhaul: controlling the country's borders, imposing sanctions on employers who hire illegally, creating a guest worker program for seasonal industries, and emphasizing assimilation for immigrants already here. Soon after, the House and Senate began drafting their own legislation.


Q: What did Congress do?

A: Without holding public hearings, the House, in less than two weeks in December 2005, passed a bill that addressed only border control issues. That enforcement-only bill would build a 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, make illegal presence a felony, criminalize those who help illegal immigrants, and increase fines for noncompliant employers. After months of tough negotiations -- and after large rallies in Los Angeles, New York, Washington and other major cities by pro-immigrant advocates -- the Senate responded in May with a bill that included not only enforcement, but also a guest worker program and a path toward legal status for most illegal immigrants.


Q: What is happening with the

immigration bills now?

A: Instead of starting negotiations on a final bill, the House announced that it would spend the summer holding town-hall-style hearings on the Senate bill. The Senate then announced its own summer hearings.


Q: Why are the House and Senate holding these hearings?

A: House Majority Leader Rep. John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has said the hearings are intended to "strengthen our hand going in" to talks with the Senate. Critics say House leaders are demagoguing the issue, using the hearings to stir passion among the Republican Party's conservative base in advance of the fall elections. Senators say their sessions are meant to inform the public about why they think their approach is best.


Q: How common is it for the House

to announce public hearings on a Senate bill?

A: It is highly unusual. House historian Robert Remini told Bloomberg News that he was "unaware of any other instance" when congressional leaders held hearings on the other chamber's proposal before negotiating on a final bill.


Q: Why does it matter if the House takes the time to hold hearings?

A: The hearings, which cost taxpayer dollars, increase the possibility that attempts to revamp immigration law will fail because this session of Congress will run out of time. The hearings continue into August, so negotiations on a final bill will not start until after Labor Day. But lawmakers traditionally avoid serious business in the run-up to November elections, and Congress has other issues on its plate. The issue may not be resolved until a lame-duck session after the elections. If lawmakers cannot pass a law at that point, they will have to start from scratch in the next Congress.


Q: Why are the Senate and House having trouble reaching

an agreement?

A: The core conflict between the two chambers is about current illegal immigrants. House Republicans decry the Senate's "amnesty" provision, as they call it, which gives illegal immigrants a way to gain legal status. They see it as rewarding lawbreakers, and they argue that tough enforcement measures at work sites would force people to leave the United States because they would no longer be able to find jobs. Senate bill supporters say that approach is not enough, pointing to estimates that 500,000 people enter the country illegally every year despite more than $20 billion in government spending on enforcement over the last decade. Many senators are skeptical that illegal immigrants would go home, and say that Congress has to deal with them to avoid creating a permanent fugitive underclass. Bush has said that illegal immigrants come to support their families by accepting jobs that "Americans won't do."


Q: Why do House Republicans oppose an approach Bush backs?

A: With elections looming and Bush's approval ratings in a slump, House Republicans feel they can ignore the president. They argue that they are more in tune with American opinion than the president or the Senate, and that the people want border security first.


Q: What is the White House doing?

A: In recent weeks, as it appeared that the hearings would delay and possibly derail talks, Bush and administration officials such as Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez have been speaking often about the need to act and about the benefits of a Senate-style bill. Tuesday in Los Angeles, White House political strategist Karl Rove is scheduled to speak about immigration at the annual conference of the National Council of La Raza, a Latino civil rights and advocacy organization.


Q: What are the chances of a House-Senate compromise?

A: Speaking in Chicago on Friday, Bush sounded upbeat about the prospects for compromise. "We're working in Washington to reconcile the differences.... It's not an easy assignment. But I'm confident

One possibility lawmakers are considering is adding "triggers" into a final bill, so that provisions such as a guest worker program could start only after certain benchmarks were met. That would enable the House to claim victory for its enforcement-first approach, and still allow the Senate's other proposals to follow. Senators argue that their bill works this way in practice, and say that border security improvements have already begun. The crucial question involves what kind of triggers might be chosen. One senator tried to add an amendment to the Senate bill that would have required the secretary of Homeland Security to certify that the border was secure before any other steps could be taken. That measure was defeated, because critics said it would be impossible ever to certify complete security along the 3,000-mile southern border.


Q: What is the next step for organizers of the pro-immigrant

rallies earlier this year?

A: Immigrant advocates are working on a "Democracy Summer" campaign, registering voters for the November elections and helping immigrants who are legal permanent residents to gain U.S. citizenship.

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