STEMMING THE FLOW
MAY 2, 1996
Following consideration of more than 100 amendments, the Senate voted late Tuesday to strengthen the government's stand against illegal immigration. The Senate bill, like its counterpart in the House, touches lightly on issues of legal immigration but provides for major changes in laws dealing with illegal immigration. Kwame Holman reports on the debate that preceded the final vote.
SEN. ALAN SIMPSON, (R) Wyoming: We have the Simon amendment. We have two Graham amendments, Sen. Graham of Florida. I really think--and Sen. Feinstein will modify her amendment.
KWAME HOLMAN: Over the last four days, Wyoming's Alan Simpson, chief sponsor and manager of the Senate's illegal immigration bill patiently steered the legislation through more than 100 amendments, each an attempt by a colleague either to toughen or weaken the bill.
SEN. PAUL SIMON, (D) Illinois: This is acceptable. The Senator from Wyoming, I would ask that we set aside the amendment I just offered so that I may consider a second amendment that I have.
SEN. ALAN SIMPSON: That's perfectly appropriate with me, Mr. President.
KWAME HOLMAN: For instance, one provision in the Senate bill would lengthen retroactively the period of time sponsors would be responsible for the immigrants they support. Sen. Paul Simon made several attempts to remove that provision.
SEN. PAUL SIMON: The question is whether Uncle Sam is going to live up to his contract. We say to the sponsors, you are a sponsor for three years. Now we come back with this legislation and say, “Sorry, we're changing the contract. You thought you signed up for three years. We're going to make it five years.” I think that's wrong.
KWAME HOLMAN: Not all Senators accepted the long list of amendments with the patience of Alan Simpson.
SEN. PHIL GRAMM, (R) Texas: I don't see what we gain by going over and over and over again, plowing the same ground, or in this case dragging this dead cat which smells rank back across the table. When you sign that pledge that you're going to take care of these people until they can take care of themselves, we expect you to live up to your promise. We expect you to use your income and your assets to see that the person you have sponsored does not become a burden on the taxpayer. And so what the bill does is it, in essence, counts the sponsor's income and the sponsor's assets as yours for the purpose of you applying for welfare.
KWAME HOLMAN: The debate over the sponsorship provision demonstrates how issues of legal and illegal immigration can become intertwined, despite the best efforts of members to keep them separate, but the Senate, like the House, says it will deal with legal immigration at another time. This bill is designed primarily to reform America's policy toward illegal immigrants. It increases the number of Border Patrol agents, toughens penalties for aliens who enter the country illegally, prohibits states from offering most forms of public assistance, and establishes a national hotline so employers can verify the resident status of prospective employees.
SPOKESMAN: The Senator from Michigan, Mr. Abraham.
KWAME HOLMAN: Even though the national hotline is proposed only as a pilot program, a group of Senators led by Michigan Republican Spencer Abraham tried to remove it from the bill.
SEN. SPENCER ABRAHAM (R) Michigan: Anybody who has dealt with computer databases knows the potential for error in these types of systems. And in my judgment, to invite that kind of high cost on the employees and employers of this country would be a huge mistake. The cost of imposing these programs even on a trial basis is going to be excessive. I feel that it leads us in the direction of big government, big government expansion, and the imposition of costly federal regulations and burdens, especially on small businesses, that they do not need at this time.
KWAME HOLMAN: But Abraham lost that argument to one expressed by California Democrat Dianne Feinstein.
SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN, (D) California: We live in an information age. Hundreds of databases now exist in both the public and private sectors: databases for national credit cards, for health insurance companies, credit rating bureaus. Technology is, in fact, advancing so rapidly that the ability to create these databases and ensure their accuracy is enhanced dramatically every year. So why then, I would ask, would the Senate of the United States not want the United States Government to use a computer database to try to find a better way to help employers verify worker eligibility?
KWAME HOLMAN: The Senate voted to keep the national verification system in its bill but removed provisions that would have made it much tougher for illegal aliens to enter this country by claiming political asylum. Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy led the fight against the provision.
SEN. PATRICK LEAHY, (D) Vermont: Secondly, when we talk about the people coming in with the false passports, fleeing persecution, they don't get a hearing, they get an interview before an asylum--they get an interview by whoever is there at the border, and can get kicked out right then and there. It's cruel. It's fundamentally unfair to traumatize a fatigued refugee who would be allowed no assistance, no interpreter.
SEN. ALAN SIMPSON: As my friend from Vermont says, if a person is fleeing for his life because of religious beliefs and must use forged papers and travel through several countries to get here, under the bill, that person will be summarily sent back. That is not so. Such a person arrives under the provisions of the bill, he or she would get a hearing before a specially-trained asylum officer, and if he or she had a credible fear of persecution, substantial likelihood, and the facts are true, as I have just cited, he or she will be permitted to remain in the United States and have a full asylum hearing when he or she is prepared and ready with counsel.
KWAME HOLMAN: Sen. Leahy convinced a slim majority of his colleagues to remove the more restrictive language on political asylum, and late this afternoon, the Senate went on to pass its illegal immigration reform bill ninety-seven to three.
SEN. ALAN SIMPSON: Don't go home and analyze your votes because you'll never be able to explain them. Your staff is wondering why you voted this way or that. This issue is about America, and America is about conflict and resolution.
KWAME HOLMAN: The Senate now must reconcile its bill with the version approved by the House, a version that does include the more restrictive language on political asylum, as well as a provision allowing states to deny public education to the children of illegal immigrants, which the Senate bill does not include.