Immigration Fight Heats Up

Times Staff Writers

A Senate committee voted Monday to create a path for some of the nation’s estimated 12 million illegal immigrants to become citizens without first leaving the country, and to allow additional foreign workers to enter the United States temporarily under a program that also could lead to citizenship.

With its votes, the Judiciary Committee sided with advocates of liberalized immigration laws and moved the Senate closer to a contentious fight among GOP lawmakers. A large and vocal faction of Republicans -- in Congress and throughout the party -- believes that illegal immigrants are lawbreakers who should not be rewarded with citizenship and that a temporary worker program would only draw more illegal workers to the country.

The fight over proposals to tighten immigration laws, which have provoked massive demonstrations in Los Angeles and elsewhere, now moves to the Senate floor; debate is expected to begin this week.


The Senate is headed into “a difficult and visceral debate,” said Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.).

In a sign of how difficult passing legislation could be, the Judiciary Committee approved its immigration package even though most of its Republican members were against it. The vote was 12 to 6, with all six dissenting votes coming from Republicans; four GOP senators sided with the panel’s eight Democrats to support the measure.

Monday’s vote marked a victory for immigrant advocates and for President Bush, who has urged Congress for two years to create a temporary worker program but has argued against allowing those immigrants to gain citizenship.

White House reaction was upbeat.

“We are pleased to see the Senate moving forward on legislation,” spokesman Scott McClellan said in a statement. “The president believes comprehensive reform is needed if we are going to have a rational, orderly and secure immigration system.... It is a difficult issue that will require compromise and tough choices, but the important thing at this point is that the process is moving forward.”

The Senate panel’s bill differs significantly from an overhaul of immigration laws approved last year by the House, which focused on tightening security at the border and on toughening law enforcement and did not include a temporary worker plan, a proposal that is unacceptable to many House Republicans.

The Senate panel also voted to eliminate a proposal, contained in the House legislation, that would make being an illegal immigrant a felony, rather than a civil immigration offense as it is currently.

In addition, the Senate committee killed a measure that would have made it a felony to offer assistance to illegal immigrants other than in emergencies. That proposal had been denounced by humanitarian groups and some religious leaders, including Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles, who had said he would instruct his priests to defy it.

Supporters of the committee’s bill hailed it as a comprehensive effort that includes measures to improve border security by adding technology and agents, and provisions to make it harder for businesses to hire illegal workers.

“What has passed is much tougher enforcement and a way to take the 12 million out of the shadows,” Brownback said, referring to illegal immigrants already in the country.

“I think we have produced a bill that is the product of serious debate,” said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

One opponent on the committee, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), said: “I voted against this committee bill because it rewards illegal immigrants and will be considered an amnesty by Americans. It will encourage further disrespect for our laws and will undercut our efforts to shore up homeland security.”

The committee worked against a steady drumbeat of pressure that echoed from the White House to the marble hallways outside their hearing room.

Bush on Monday attended a naturalization ceremony for 30 new citizens, using the event to give the latest of several speeches in favor of a temporary worker program. Meanwhile, nearly 1,000 religious leaders and advocates for immigrants gathered on the West Lawn of the Capitol. Imams, preachers and rabbis led a bilingual, interfaith prayer service before marching to the panel hearing room in handcuffs to protest measures under consideration in Congress that they said were unduly harsh.

“It’s clear that the majority of the legislative options on the table -- and I don’t use this word lightly -- are immoral,” said the Very Rev. Ernesto Medina, provost of the Cathedral Center of St. Paul in Los Angeles. Red-eyed but energized, the Episcopal pastor had flown overnight from his Echo Park parish to join church leaders from 38 states. “I have seen the religious community come together before, but never like this,” he said, attributing their ability to get plane tickets on short notice to “some great miracles.”

It was unclear whether the rallies in recent days in Los Angeles and other cities affected the Senate committee vote. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) remarked on the “peaceful demonstrations in L.A., nearly the population of my state in number. That tells us how important this [legislation] is.”

Others reacted differently. “I don’t think they’re helpful to resolving the debate,” Cornyn said of the protesters. “If anything, they could well polarize people. You in effect have people who come to our country in violation of immigration laws, demanding amnesty. Rather than making demands, they ought to be asking for fairness and a way out of their current dilemma.”

Also unclear was when the Senate would take up the immigration overhaul. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) had insisted earlier that Specter force his committee to complete its work by Monday so that the full Senate could begin debate today. But there were indications that Frist would not schedule debate until later in the week. A potential presidential candidate in 2008, Frist has proposed his own immigration bill, which does not include a guest-worker plan and emphasizes border security and improved enforcement of immigration law.

In contrast, the committee bill would allow up to 400,000 new visas annually for foreign workers to enter the United States for three years. The visas could be renewed once for a total stay of six years. The program would allow visas for the worker’s family and a path to permanent resident status if the immigrant learned English, among other requirements.

Obtaining permanent resident status, also known as obtaining a green card, is a step toward citizenship under current law.

The plan was proposed by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), who has been working closely with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

Under the bill, immigrants who already are awaiting a green card would be considered ahead of those who enter the United States and apply under the new guest-worker program.

The committee approved an additional guest-worker program sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) intended exclusively for agricultural workers. It would offer 1.5 million “blue cards” to workers who would have to work in the fields for at least 100 days a year and at most 150. Those who did so and met other requirements could apply for permanent residency.

“The thrust of this proposal is to create a legalized workforce for the agriculture industry,” Feinstein said. The program would end after five years.

Some of the most intense debate among panel members came over the fate of the 12 million undocumented workers already in the United States. One proposal had allowed them to indefinitely renew special visas, called “gold cards,” that would permit work and residency in the United States for as long as they liked. It would not have allowed them to become citizens.

But the committee instead adopted an amendment sponsored by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) that would allow illegal immigrants to start on a path to citizenship by registering, paying a fine, getting fingerprinted and learning English, among other requirements.

“Now there’s a rough draft of a workable bill going to the floor of the Senate. The question now is what Frist will do,” said Tamar Jacoby of the Manhattan Institute, a pro-business think tank that backs a guest-worker program. “It’s hard for me to imagine how Sen. Frist could ignore this product coming out of the committee.”

Those who voted in favor of the bill were Republicans Graham, Brownback, Specter and Mike DeWine of Ohio, and Democrats Leahy, Kennedy, Feinstein, Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, Herb Kohl and Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin, Charles E. Schumer of New York and Richard J. Durbin of Illinois.

Voting against the bill were Republicans Cornyn, Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, Jon Kyl of Arizona, Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma.

Times staff writer Matthew O'Rourke contributed to this report.