Senators Delay Immigration Debate to Work Behind the Scenes

Times Staff Writers

Senators agreed Tuesday to briefly delay their debate on immigration, giving lawmakers time to work for greater consensus on an issue that has sparked a furor on Capitol Hill and around the country.

With negotiations continuing behind the scenes, however, it remained unclear which of several competing proposals -- if any -- might gain momentum.

“People are all over the place,” said Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio).

The Senate, which initially had planned to begin its debate on Tuesday, could start its deliberations late today or Thursday. Under an agreement reached between the chamber’s Republican majority and Democrats, the discussions will focus at first on border security.


As a result, some of the most controversial aspects of the immigration debate -- especially proposals to create guest-worker programs that would offer illegal immigrants a path to citizenship -- may not be confronted until next week.

The delay was driven partly by divisions within the Republican Party -- conflicts that reflect differences of opinion nationwide.

Some GOP lawmakers believe that the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. should be declared criminals and that border security should be the main focus of new legislation. Others view undocumented immigrants as an important source of labor, and favor plans to create temporary work visas that could provide a path to citizenship.

“We have conflicting ... visions and values -- one, that we’re a nation of immigrants, and we’re proud of that; we’ve all come from somewhere else. But we’re also a nation of laws, and we have to reconcile it,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), a proponent of tougher border security and an opponent of guest-worker proposals that would lead to citizenship.

As the debate in the Senate gears up, an unexpected surge in public demonstrations has occurred in communities in California and across the nation, protesting the tough crackdown on illegal immigration sought by some lawmakers.

After a march in downtown Los Angeles on Saturday that attracted an estimated crowd of 500,000, protests have occurred this week in several Southern California communities, as well as Reno, Phoenix, Detroit, Yakima, Wash., and elsewhere.

The bill that will launch the Senate’s debate was introduced by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), and contains many of the proposals that triggered these protests. One provision would make undocumented immigrants guilty of a felony for being in the U.S. without the proper papers. Currently, crossing the border illegally is a civil infraction.

A similar provision is contained in a border-security bill the House passed late last year.

After considering Frist’s bill, senators will move on to debate legislation approved Monday by the Senate Judiciary Committee -- a measure that includes a guest-worker plan and a citizenship path for undocumented immigrants.

The arrangement offers Frist, a presidential hopeful, and other Republicans a chance to note that they brought an enforcement-only immigration bill to the Senate floor. That measure, however, is not expected to come to a vote.

Frist “wants to discuss border enforcement for 24 hours before moving to our bill,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the Republican sponsor of the more sweeping bill approved by the Judiciary Committee. “He thinks it’s important, and I don’t disagree with him.”

The measure passed by the Judiciary panel would make it possible for illegal immigrants already in the United States to move toward citizenship, after paying back taxes and a penalty. It also would create a guest-worker program that would be open to 400,000 additional immigrants each year.

Although the bill does not include the provision to make illegal immigration a felony, it would criminalize the construction of border tunnels and double the number of border agents.

The bill cheered many immigrant advocates, but several Republicans have made it clear that they will fight it. These lawmakers view plans that would give illegal immigrants a chance to become U.S. citizens as an amnesty that would reward lawbreakers.

“Many people believe it is amnesty. I’m going to call it a different name. I’m going to call it unfair,” said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.). “My grandparents waited a long time to come to this country as immigrants, and there are literally millions of people around the world who would like to come here. They’re abiding by the rules, standing in line.”

Others questioned whether the Judiciary Committee bill did a good enough job on security.

“I think people are concerned about national security and the legal system, and feel that neither one is being protected,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).

Senators will probably debate immigration legislation through the end of next week, when the chamber is scheduled to adjourn for a two-week spring recess.

Any version passed by the Senate would have to be reconciled with the significantly more restrictive bill adopted by the House.

Along with making illegal immigration a felony, that bill calls for building 700 miles of fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. It also would require employers to check with the Department of Homeland Security to ensure that all of their employees are working legally.

The different approaches the House and Senate are taking to rewriting immigration laws may stymie any compromise.

“It will be difficult to bridge the gap” between the two chambers, Kyl said.