Migration battle lines redrawn

Times Staff Writer

Three months after Congress failed to pass a broad immigration overhaul, lawmakers are quietly returning to the hot-button issue, discussing narrower measures that address illegal immigrants and low-skilled laborers.

Already, critics are promising fireworks.

As early as this week, Democratic senators are set to introduce an amendment that would give conditional legal status to young illegal immigrants.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) hopes to bring up a visa program that eventually would allow farmhands to gain citizenship, whereas Republican senators are discussing a short-term guest worker program for low-skilled laborers.


Republicans also are considering a bill that would overhaul visas for high-skilled foreigners.

In the House, Republicans have been steadily introducing initiatives aimed at ensuring that illegal immigrants could not gain access to federal benefits.

“We may be heading for another immigration battle,” Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said of the measures headed for the Senate floor.

“Hopefully it can be avoided.”

After the Senate failed in June to pass the broad immigration bill, rebuffing President Bush, who supported it, many on Capitol Hill predicted the issue would lie fallow until after the 2008 presidential election. But that has not been the case.

The Bush administration in August unveiled a roster of aggressive enforcement initiatives, provoking a legal challenge from labor and business groups and outrage from immigrant advocates. The Department of Homeland Security has continued its stepped-up raids on work sites that use illegal laborers, and in August it deported a high-profile illegal immigrant activist who had spent months in a Chicago church, declaring it a sanctuary.

Immigrant groups nationwide have staged vigils, protests and letter-writing campaigns to demand changes in policy. Groups that want to limit immigration also have kept a sharp eye on Congress, on the lookout for any attempts to pass what they view as “amnesty” -- proposals that would open the way to legalization for illegal immigrants.


Since the comprehensive bill’s failure, some of the focus on immigration has served political goals.

Republican senators quickly brought up an enforcement bill, a hit with their conservative base. The Democratic-sponsored measures generally appeal to Latino voters. Staff members from both parties say immigration-related amendments could turn up on any major piece of legislation expected to pass.

Some of the measures now in the works don’t have much bipartisan support, limiting their chances of success. And some lawmakers express doubts that it is possible to restructure the immigration system through separate bills rather than sweeping legislation.

“I’m personally very skeptical of a piecemeal approach,” said Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), a member of the bipartisan coalition that tried to pass the overhaul earlier this year. “The hardest thing to do . . . is take care of” the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. “The minute we start doing the easy things, like taking care of agribusiness interests because they need the workers, . . . then we’re leaving the hard things” unaddressed.

The central conflict that tripped up the comprehensive bill remains the question of whether illegal immigrants should be given the chance to earn legal status. That question will be an issue in at least two of the measures headed for the Senate.

The first to come up is expected to be the “Dream Act,” a bill championed by Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) that would give conditional legal status to immigrants brought to the U.S. at a young age.


To qualify under it, they must have been in the country for at least five years, have a high school diploma and meet other requirements. Over the next six years, they would have to spend two years in college or the military, after which they could become legal permanent residents, a step toward citizenship.

Durbin plans to attach the bill as an amendment to a defense funding measure scheduled to come before the Senate today, his staff said.

The bill has broad support, prompting immigration restrictionist groups to send alerts warning that the Senate was planning “to pass an amnesty act by hiding language in the defense authorization bill.”

Feinstein has championed an AgJobs program with increasing intensity as farms have struggled to find labor. The program would allow up to 1.5 million agricultural workers to gain legal status through a “blue card,” provided they did farm work for a certain number of days every year. Those who met the criteria could apply for legal permanent resident status after five years.

The bill’s prospects are uncertain. Feinstein lost a crucial AgJobs ally when Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho) recently announced he would resign because of the scandal surrounding his arrest in a Minneapolis airport restroom.

In July, Feinstein and Craig had won a commitment from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that the AgJobs proposal would be considered, possibly as an amendment to the farm bill expected to be debated in the early fall.


“We know that virtually all of the agricultural workforce is undocumented,” Feinstein said. “Today there are shortages. . . . AgJobs is a pilot program that would provide a reliable workforce to plant and harvest crops in this country.”

Sessions is actively campaigning against both Durbin and Feinstein’s initiatives, arguing that the two proposals would give more than 4 million illegal immigrants eventual citizenship.

He said he would support a plan under discussion among Republicans, including Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), to create a version of AgJobs that would limit workers to short-term stays in the U.S. and not provide any kind of longer-term legal status.

Stripping legalization provisions from a farm worker program would vastly increase its chances of passing, Republicans say.

“The question is, what is it going to take to . . . get anything moving in order to reform” the existing farm guest worker program? asked a Republican Senate aide.

“In order to do that, you have to recognize that this is the issue that the immigration bill failed on, the issue of amnesty.”


Senate Republicans are also discussing ways to increase the number of visas for high-skilled workers, now capped at 65,000 a year.

In the House, Republicans have continued the effort they pushed when they controlled the chamber last year -- keeping the immigration debate focused on enforcement measures.

Republican lawmakers have introduced amendments to ban illegal immigrants from receiving federal benefits -- something that is already law -- to a range of bills, including a federal housing measure scheduled for debate this week. --