Fresh potential on immigration

Times Staff Writer

With a new Democratic-controlled Congress and a president newly committed to bipartisan accomplishments, prospects for an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws have never seemed brighter.

But reform efforts could still stumble over the stickiest issue: how to craft a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants that will win the support of lawmakers who draw the line at “amnesty.”

In the House, where these conservatives could derail a bill, the job of finding that elusive middle ground falls to Rep. Zoe Lofgren. The San Jose Democrat, who heads the immigration subcommittee, has been buttonholing lawmakers, quizzing them between votes and hosting formal meetings.


“There’s a way to deal with this,” she said. “The Republicans I’ve listened to make it clear they’re open to dialogue, to practical solutions.”

Across Capitol Hill, Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) are pursuing the same goal as they develop a plan based on last year’s comprehensive immigration bill, which passed the Senate, but not the House.

And in his State of the Union address last week, President Bush emphasized the importance of advances in border security and enforcement, a pitch to lawmakers who are nervous about reforms that could be seen as rewarding people who entered the country illegally.

Advocates for a broad immigration bill say it will need the support of at least 20 Republicans in the Senate and perhaps 40 in the House.

“They exist, they just have to be reassured about some things,” said Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute who backs comprehensive immigration reform. “How do you bring along the people who said ‘no’ last year?”

The approach Bush took in his speech is a good start, she said. “He talked to them about border security, illegality in communities, assimilation, about working with local cops and communities. I think it’s shrewd. I don’t know if he can move those people, but the way to do it is address those concerns.”

The Senate bill that passed last year encompassed stepped-up enforcement efforts, a program to let immigrants in as guest workers and a process for illegal immigrants to become legal residents.

The Senate seems likely to pass a similar bill this session.

In contrast, the House is legislative terra incognita.

The House passed an enforcement-only bill last year with little debate, but never debated broader legislation. And House leaders will have to appeal not only to Republicans, but to a cadre of freshman Democrats who campaigned for tougher immigration enforcement.

As a result, lawmakers are crafting legislation with conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans in mind.

“A lot of members of Congress made campaign promises, so one of the challenges is to create a comprehensive bill that’s consistent with the commitments people made during the campaign,” said Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a co-sponsor of the House version of the Senate bill.

Though immigration is a difficult issue, lawmakers burst out of the legislative starting blocks in the first three weeks of Congress.

Republicans introduced enforcement bills in both chambers and offered tough immigration-related amendments to unrelated Senate legislation. A bipartisan Senate group proposed a bill that would give illegal farm workers a way to become legal permanent residents, a step toward citizenship. And Democrats announced their intention to reexamine the plan to build a 700-mile barrier along the southern border, which the previous Congress passed.

Lofgren said one key to winning over House lawmakers would be education, because few have had a chance to discuss the issues involved.

“Our challenge is to come up with a bill that will get broad support,” said Lofgren. “The House bill that passed last year was a very draconian measure. That’s not what the country wants, nor what I intend to pursue, but we need to have a dialogue.

“I’m hoping for a comprehensive package, but I’m pretty confident I’m not going to get everything I want.”

She warned that the House process would be slower than the Senate’s, but said that she believed lawmakers were ready to act, particularly after watching strident colleagues such as Rep. J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) lose to candidates who back comprehensive reform.

“I don’t think that was lost on people,” Lofgren said.

Senate leaders Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have made immigration one of the first 10 bills they will take on. McCain and Kennedy are aiming to introduce their legislation in February and are reexamining the section on legalizing illegal immigrants.

The previous bill included a three-tier approach to illegal immigrants based on their length of stay in the United States, requiring that some of them leave and allowing others to stay. It was designed to appeal to conservatives uncomfortable with treating illegal immigrants who have been in the country for many years the same as those who just arrived.

But the administration has told lawmakers that is unworkable.

Instead, the lawmakers may revert to the formula in their original bill, which required illegal immigrants to pay fines and back taxes, undergo background checks, and learn English, among other requirements, before they could be processed for legal status.

The lawmakers will also rework the provision on the temporary worker program to meet demands from immigrant advocates for more labor protections, and demands from business-oriented Republicans for programs that would supply more workers.

Attempts to bolster the bill’s support among conservatives in both parties will focus in part on making employer verification programs more robust. Senate aides say that holding employers more accountable for hiring illegal immigrants would ease concerns some lawmakers have about supporting a comprehensive bill.

Opponents cite the 1986 immigration reform, which included an amnesty for 3 million illegal immigrants, as a failure, charging that it simply encouraged more people to come illegally in the expectation that they would eventually be given citizenship. Today there are about 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S.

Comprehensive reform supporters argue that illegal immigration increased because the 1986 enforcement provisions were never enforced. They hope to convince skeptics that piecemeal measures will not work as they make their case for broad legislation this year.

Despite the commitments from members on both sides of the aisle, compromise could still prove futile.

For some conservatives, any plan to legalize illegal immigrants would be hard to swallow. And for advocates, who will meet at a Washington summit this week expected to draw 200 grass-roots groups, anything short of that is inhumane.

Cecilia Munoz, vice president of the National Council of La Raza, a Latino civil rights and advocacy group, points to the previous Senate bill’s three-tier legalization system as an example of the contortions that result when lawmakers try to compromise.

“It didn’t pick up any votes and it made the program unworkable,” Munoz said. “After many years of trying to reach that middle ground, it may be time to admit that it does not exist.”