Senate gets tougher on the border

Times Staff Writer

After a brief but tense standoff, the Senate on Wednesday bolstered the security provisions in a controversial immigration bill after a Republican senator charged that it failed to do enough to stop illegal immigrants from crossing the southern border.

The unexpected challenge by Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), former chairman of a domestic security subcommittee, led to heated whispers on the floor and a flurry of defensive activity from the bipartisan group that drafted the bill.

Gregg argued that the bill’s “triggers” -- security measures required before other aspects of the bill take effect, including its legalization program for illegal immigrants -- had been chosen only because they could be completed in 18 months, not because they met security needs.


His amendment, which was approved on a voice vote, increased the requirements for vehicle barriers by 100 miles for a total of 300 miles; added 35 more camera and radar towers for a total of 105; and called for 2,000 more Border Patrol agents for a total of 20,000.

Calling the differences “not dramatic, but significant,” Gregg said his security measures were based on suggestions he had heard in congressional testimony. “I suggest we take the numbers we know are necessary to gain operational control,” he said.

The amendment was one of several introduced Wednesday as Republicans and Democrats pushed to reshape the bill. One amendment was to halve the number of temporary workers allowed in a new program.

Republicans moved to stiffen the bill’s provisions, mandating jail time for some illegal immigrants caught at the border, while Democrats targeted key Republican elements of the bill that limited family-based immigration.

The bill, a carefully constructed compromise engineered by a small bipartisan group, rests on a “grand bargain” that gives Democrats a provision that would legalize illegal immigrants who arrived before January 2007. In exchange, Republicans won a reduced emphasis on family reunification as the main criterion for legal immigration in favor of a point system that rewards immigrants with the education and skills to help meet the nation’s economic needs.

Both sides in the coalition have made it clear that any substantial changes to those central elements of the bill could destroy their bargain, their unity and ultimately the bill.

“We are going to see a lot of amendments designed to appeal to various constituent groups,” said Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), the bill’s lead Republican architect. He added that as long as these changes didn’t touch the “central bargain,” the bipartisan group’s members would vote their consciences, but would unite to defend threats to the bill.

Gregg’s measure initially appeared to be such a threat.

Sens. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), all members of the bipartisan coalition, immediately took to the floor to urge the amendment’s defeat.

The “additional requirements obviously will take longer to complete,” Specter said. Salazar warned that the measure “would essentially derail the triggers we have set up.”

Kennedy then moved to end debate on the matter, unaware that Gregg had not finished his rebuttal. In a chamber that prides itself on civility, that left Gregg visibly angry; his face reddened and his voice vibrated with apparent fury as he objected and was overruled.

He approached Kennedy and appeared to speak sharply. Immediately, coalition members clustered. Salazar and Specter approached Gregg, who listened briefly then walked away. Salazar crossed back to the Democratic side of the Senate floor to join an impromptu huddle with Kennedy, Kyl and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Soon Kennedy announced that the Senate would agree unanimously to the amendment and that they would negotiate details later.

The maneuvering suggested the bill’s stewards did not want a recorded vote that might show lopsided support for Gregg’s measure. Avoiding such a vote gives them more room to try to scale back the security measures in a conference committee with the House.

Other amendments were less controversial.

A provision by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) to halve the bill’s temporary worker program from a baseline of 400,000 workers a year to 200,000 passed 74 to 24. Bingaman argued that the program, which would bring workers to fill mostly low-wage jobs in the restaurant, hospitality and construction industries, was too large and untested.

“This is the prudent thing to do,” he said. “It will not destroy the bill.”

Urging the Senate to reject the amendment, Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez issued a statement saying, “A robust temporary worker program is an essential component of border security.”

Kyl complained that the amendment removed the administration’s ability to adjust the number of temporary worker visas. The bill would have allowed the cap to be increased to 600,000 a year. Kyl warned that without that element, Republicans might sour on the bill.

Three other amendments passed unanimously, including a measure by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) to establish rules for unaccompanied immigrant children and one by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) to allow immigrant dairy workers to come to the U.S. for as long as three years.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) introduced a measure that would require jail sentences of not less than 60 days for illegal immigrants caught crossing the border who had previously been convicted of crimes in the United States. That passed unanimously despite complaints from Democrats, including Bingaman, that it “loads more debt on U.S. taxpayers just to show we’re getting tough on crime.”

In a bid to prevent legal immigrants from challenging visa revocations, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) introduced an amendment that would reduce their access to courts. It may come up for a vote today.

Democrats introduced a series of amendments Wednesday that take square aim at Republican changes to the family-based immigration system. They will come up for votes in the coming days.

Sens. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) offered an amendment that would make it easier for immigrants to earn credit for their family ties to the United States under the new point system. A second amendment offered by the pair would end the point system after five years unless Congress voted to continue it.

Menendez also introduced an amendment with Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) that would allow legal permanent residents to bring their spouses and children younger than 21 to the United States more quickly.

Annual visa caps and long backlogs mean that legal residents can wait five to 10 years to bring their families, during which time their children and spouses are not allowed to visit and the legal residents must stay primarily in the country or risk losing their status.

In contrast, current law allows citizens, students, temporary workers and others to bring their minor children and spouses into the U.S. without long waits.

“For those who talk about family values, now’s the time to match your rhetoric,” Clinton said. “This is about family values.”