Senate Starts Immigration Debate

Times Staff Writer

The opening bell sounded Thursday on the Senate’s effort to overhaul immigration laws, but the committee taking the lead on the legislation appeared to be severely divided.

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee staked out sharply different positions on whether to create a guest-worker program, how to enforce border security and how to handle the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country.

“I have seen virtually no agreement on anything,” Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the committee chairman, said during a meeting intended to begin negotiating the legislation.


He said the committee faced a “gigantic task” in fashioning legislation by the March 27 deadline set by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.).

Committee members seemed united only in their assessment that the bill Specter provided as a starting point was an “unmitigated disaster,” as the chairman put it in characterizing their criticism.

Frist has told the committee that if it cannot deliver a bill by March 27, he will present a measure for a vote. Like the immigration legislation passed by the House in December, Frist’s bill concentrates on enforcement measures.

To meet the deadline, the lawmakers would have to work through Specter’s 305-page bill and more than 30 of their own amendments, including measures that would deny U.S. citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants and would forbid the Department of Homeland Security from indefinitely detaining illegal immigrants.

The panel’s challenge will be reconciling the views of senators who say that no reform can take place until there is greater control of the border with those of senators who contend border security will be possible only with the creation of a guest-worker program, which would create a legal pathway for foreign workers to temporarily hold jobs in the United States.

Specter’s bill, which has heavy enforcement provisions, has been controversial in both camps.


It seeks to create a program that would allow workers to come to the United States for as many as six years but would not lead to citizenship. Undocumented workers already in the country would be able to stay under an indefinite work permit, but they could not become citizens either.

Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) have also offered a guest-worker plan that would not grant citizenship.

A competing bill by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) would create a guest-worker program that could allow newly arriving workers to gain citizenship. It would also set a pathway for illegal immigrants already in the country to obtain citizenship as long as they met certain requirements and paid fines and back taxes.

“The choice is to legalize them or leave them in the shadows,” Kennedy said of undocumented immigrants. He contended that without the incentive of citizenship, illegal immigrants would not come forward. “Only legalizing them will work,” he said.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) dismissed that argument. A guest-worker program would simply draw more undocumented immigrants and burden struggling government agencies, he said in advocating more resources for border security.

“If we go forward with a guest-worker program, we’ll have a much worse problem,” he said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) proposed a guest-worker program limited to the agriculture industry that would provide 300,000 jobs a year for three years. Feinstein said she did not want to expand her program beyond agriculture, because “you displace American workers that way.”


But others made it clear they saw no value in limited programs. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), who sponsored the amendment to deny citizenship to the children of undocumented immigrants, said the senators “shouldn’t do anything until we secure the border.”

Some senators tried to bridge the apparent divide.

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) reminded his colleagues of recent immigration history, noting that in 1986, with an estimated 3 million undocumented immigrants in the country, Congress passed legislation granting amnesty to some immigrants. In 1996, when the number of illegal immigrants had climbed to about 7 million, Congress passed tougher enforcement laws.

Brownback said it was clear that either approach, in isolation, did not work.

“We’ve got to do both: Increase enforcement and create a positive track,” he said. “It’s a tough needle to thread.”