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Senate Passes Sweeping Bill on Immigration

Times Staff Writer

The Senate on Thursday approved a sweeping bill that would upgrade border security and offer a path to citizenship to most illegal immigrants in the U.S., setting up a major -- and probably bitter -- confrontation over revamping immigration policy.

The bill passed 62 to 36, moving Congress a significant step closer to the first overhaul of immigration law since 1986.

But key differences between the Senate measure and a bill the House passed late last year mean that the legislation’s final contours -- if an agreement can even be reached -- remain uncertain.

The effort to reach a compromise, strongly endorsed by President Bush, now rests with House and Senate negotiators who will conduct their talks behind closed doors.

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Staunch opposition to the Senate bill from House conservatives is a key hurdle to an accord. They view any provisions that would permit illegal immigrants to become citizens as a reward for criminal activity.

Still, passage of the Senate bill represents a victory for Bush, who began a push for a broad overhaul of immigration policy with a speech in January 2004. His proposals sparked an extended debate about border security, the role of immigrants in American life and how best to deal with the estimated 12 million people who are in the country illegally.

For many lawmakers, the challenge in rewriting immigration laws has been to find a middle ground between recognizing the nation’s heritage as a nation of immigrants and planning for its future in an uncertain age of terrorism.

Resolving the immigration issue in a comprehensive way “is a national security issue,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of the leaders of the bipartisan coalition that shepherded the Senate bill to passage.

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Referring to the path to citizenship that the bill would create for illegal immigrants, McCain said: “Some Americans believe we must find all these millions, round them up and send them back. I don’t know how you do that. I don’t know why you would want to.”

But some conservative senators roundly condemned the legalization provisions.

“This bill is going to make the problem of illegal immigrants much worse,” said Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), arguing that the legalization measures would simply draw more people across the border.

Like many of the Senate bill’s opponents, Vitter said Congress needed to produce a measure that dealt solely with beefed-up security at the nation’s borders and stricter enforcement of immigration law in the workplace.

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The House bill adheres to that course.

The Senate roll call on its bill illustrated the GOP divide on the issue: 23 Republicans, 38 Democrats and one independent voted for the legislation; 32 Republicans and four Democrats opposed it.

California’s senators, Democrats Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, supported the bill.

Immediately after the vote, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) offered his odds on the prospects for a compromise during the negotiations ahead.

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“I want to warn people, it is a 50-50 proposition to get a bill on the president’s desk,” he said. “I would like to see us improve those odds, and I think we will.”

As Senate passage neared this week, House Republican leaders signaled a willingness to consider a guest worker program. But they continued to draw the line at legalization measures.

Despite that position, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) insisted he was optimistic a compromise could be reached -- with the help of Bush.

“I believe we can do it,” he said. “The time has come for very active participation by the president.”

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A statement by Bush on Thursday night underscored his backing for the broader Senate approach rather than the narrower House version.

“An effective immigration reform bill will protect our borders, hold employers to account for the workers they hire, create a temporary worker program ... address the issue of the millions of illegal immigrants already in our country and honor America’s great tradition of the melting pot,” he said.

The Senate legislation resembles the outline that Bush laid out in his 2004 speech.

Border security would get a boost, with 14,000 Border Patrol agents added to the existing 11,300 over the next five years. Extra detention facilities would be built to hold the illegal immigrants caught at the border. And the bill authorizes the construction of 370 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico boundary.

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Employers would have to start using an electronic verification system within 18 months to ensure that all new hires are legal. Companies that hired illegal workers would be fined up to $20,000, and repeat offenders would draw prison terms.

In its most controversial section, the bill creates a three-tiered system to determine the future status of illegal immigrants.

Those who arrived in the U.S. in the last two years would be required to leave. Those in the country more than two years but less than five years would have to leave the country and get a work visa before reentering, after which they could work toward legal status.

Those in the U.S. longer than five years could stay and eventually apply for permanent legal status, a step toward citizenship, as long as they paid back taxes and fines of at least $3,250, continued working, and learned English and U.S. civics.

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A guest worker program would allow foreign workers to enter the country in the future and provide a way for them to gain permanent legal status.

The bill also declares English the national language.

In contrast, the House bill has no provisions for a guest worker program or for accommodating illegal immigrants. Instead, it would criminalize illegal presence in the U.S., a status that is now a civil offense.

It also provides for a 700-mile barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border and would require that employers verify the status of all employees within six years.

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It is not clear how quickly the House and Senate will begin talks over a joint bill.

Mexican President Vicente Fox, visiting Sacramento, praised the Senate’s approval of the immigration bill as a “monumental step forward.”

“It is a moment that millions of families have been hoping for; this is the moment that millions of people have been working for,” Fox said in a speech to the California Legislature.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) said that by late Thursday, he and Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) would finish appointing senators to negotiate with House members in what is known as a conference committee. Frist added that he would urge the House to appoint negotiators “as soon as possible.”

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But at least some House Republicans argue that it might be better not to negotiate at all.

“There might be some strategic advantage in not calling the conference and just asking the Senate to pass the House bill as written,” said Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.). “My fear is that the bills are so far apart that it may dissolve into chaos if conference is called.”

Other House Republicans say the party will look incompetent if Congress doesn’t send a bill to the president before November’s midterm elections.

“We are better off with any bill than no bill,” said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.). “This is our best shot, and for both political and strategic reasons, we’re best off getting this done.”

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“The wrath of the voters will be upon” the GOP majorities in the House and Senate if no bill is produced, added Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.). “I think you have to have something.”

Scores of House Republicans, however, have stressed that they cannot support any form of legalization for those in the country illegally.

“I’m not opposed to a guest worker status. I’m opposed to illegals becoming legal,” said Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.). “I think it’s better to have no bill than a bad bill,” which he described as “any bill that has legalization.”

Some Senate conservatives view negotiations with the House as a chance to correct the flaws they see in the bill. These senators oppose the legalization measures, and some prefer the House approach of addressing only security and enforcement issues.

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Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who will take part in the conference talks, expressed conservatives’ hopes for the closed-door sessions.

“We’ll have the ability to craft something, in effect, from scratch,” he said.

But in another example of the complicated task that faces the negotiators, a proposed compromise that lacks legalization provisions probably would spur opposition from most Senate Democrats and doom its chances in that chamber.

Times staff writers Maura Reynolds in Washington and Peter Nicholas in Sacramento contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

How the bills stack up

There are key differences between the Senate immigration bill passed Thursday and the House bill passed in December.

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Issue: Legalization of undocumented immigrants

Senate bill: Allows illegal immigrants who have been in the country five years or more to remain, continue working and eventually become legal permanent residents and citizens after paying back taxes, paying at least $3,250 in fines and fees, and learning English.

Requires illegal immigrants in the U.S. more than two but less than five years to go to a point of entry at the border and file an application to return.

Requires those in the country less than two years to leave.

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House bill: Contains no provisions providing a path to legal residency or citizenship for illegal immigrants.

Makes illegal presence in the country a felony.

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Issue: Temporary worker program

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Senate bill: Creates a special guest worker program for an estimated 1.5 million farm workers, who could also earn legal permanent residency.

House bill: Contains no new temporary guest worker program.

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Issue: Enforcement

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Senate bill: Orders deportation of illegal immigrants convicted of a felony or three misdemeanors, no matter how long they have been in the U.S.

Authorizes hiring an additional 1,000 Border Patrol agents this year, for a total of 3,000 new agents in 2006.

Authorizes more detention facilities for apprehended illegal immigrants.

House bill: Makes it a felony to assist, encourage, direct or induce a person to enter or attempt to enter or remain in the United States illegally.

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Establishes mandatory sentences for smuggling illegal immigrants and for reentering the U.S. illegally after deportation.

Makes a drunk driving conviction a deportable offense.

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Issue: Employer sanctions

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Senate bill: Requires employers and subcontractors to use an electronic system within 18 months to verify that new hires are legal.

Increases maximum fines on employers for hiring illegal workers to $20,000 for each worker and imposes jail time for repeat offenders.

House bill: Increases maximum fines for employers of illegal workers from the current $10,000 to $40,000 per violation and establishes prison sentences of up to 30 years for repeat offenders.

Beginning in six years, all employers would have to use a database to verify Social Security numbers of all employees.

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Issue: Fences

Senate bill: Authorizes 370 miles of new triple-layered fencing plus 500 miles of vehicle barriers along the 2,000-mile-long Mexico border. Requires building two-layer fences along 700 miles of the Mexico border.

Issue: Other

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Senate bill: Declares English the national language.

Source: Associated Press

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Next steps

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The Senate and House have passed immigration bills with key differences, so a committee with members from each chamber is expected to try to reach a compromise.

* House and Senate negotiators may hold public sessions, but the real work is usually conducted behind closed doors.

* Talks could begin shortly and wrap up quickly, or they could last for months.

* An unusually large Senate contingent of 14 Republicans and 12 Democrats is expected, probably led by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

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* The makeup of the House team is not yet known, though it is expected to be led by House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.).

* If negotiators fail to reconcile their differences, the legislation dies.

* A compromise would go to the floor of both houses for a vote. Usually, but not always, the compromise is approved and sent to the president, whose signature makes it law.

Source: Los Angeles Times

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Los Angeles Times


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