TOPICS > Politics

Congress Moves Forward on the Immigration Border Bill Debate

May 24, 2006 at 1:13 PM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: The Republican-controlled Senate is on the verge of passing the most ambitious immigration reform bill in two decades, and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham said political urgency is the reason why.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R), South Carolina: Much is at stake for our party. We have the White House; we have the Senate; and we have the House. If we can’t solve this problem because it’s politically too hard for us, people are going to turn to another group to solve this problem.

KWAME HOLMAN: Both Republicans and Democrats agree there is a problem, and a majority of senators from both parties support the bill, which would strengthen border enforcement; create a new guest-worker program; and provide an eventual path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants.

But throughout two weeks of debate, some members have tried to make major changes to the bill, changes supporters have warned would wreck the bipartisan coalition holding the bill together.

One frequent target was the three-tiered approach to citizenship included in the bill. It allows for those here more than five years to enter immediately a legalization process that would require an estimated 11 years to obtain citizenship.

Those in the country less than five years, but no more than two, would have to return to their native countries and re-enter through a guest-worker program before being able to apply for legal status.

Those in the U.S. less than two years would be required to leave the country immediately.

California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, however, urged colleagues to clear the way for all undocumented immigrants in the U.S. before January 1st, assuming they met certain criteria.

SEN. DIANNE FEINSTEIN (D), California: I think it says to everybody: You have to earn this legalization. You have to get out there, and you have to work for at least six more years. You have to report in, but you have a card that identifies that you are in adjusted status. You are not subject to deportation.


Some think language is too lenient

KWAME HOLMAN: Texas Republican John Cornyn, one of several conservatives who believes even the current language is too lenient, objected.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), Texas: While I agree with her on the diagnosis, I don't agree with her prescription. And the prescription, the alleged cure here for the diagnosis, is that basically we throw our hands up and say that we cannot enforce the law.

KWAME HOLMAN: Feinstein's amendment was defeated with the help of many of her fellow Democrats who wanted to preserve the bipartisan compromise. Republican Arlen Specter opposed it, as well, he, too, anticipating that Feinstein's amendment would have upset too many of his conservative colleagues.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER, Pennsylvania: If this amendment were to be adopted, the very delicate, fragile coalition which we have for this bill would, I think, fail.

"Let's talk about equality"

KWAME HOLMAN: Georgia Republican Saxby Chambliss suffered a similar rejection when he tried to convince colleagues that legal farm-workers holding temporary visas and illegal farm-workers should be paid the same wage set by the federal government. He said it would benefit the undocumented.

SEN. SAXBY CHAMBLISS (R), Georgia: All are here to earn money to support their families and improve the quality of their lives. Many will work in the same occupations. Should they not be treated the same? I believe they should.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy argued that many farm-workers' wages already are above that federally established level and the Chambliss amendment actually would cut their pay.

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY (D), Massachusetts: Talk about fairness. When I listen to the senator from Georgia, let's talk about fairness. Let's talk about equity. Let's talk about treating everyone the same. Well, they'll be treated the same, but they're going to be treated mighty shabbily.

Amendment narrowly defeated

KWAME HOLMAN: Chambliss's amendment was the subject of fierce lobbying on Capitol Hill from labor unions and the California Farm Bureau, who argued its passage could cost senators political support. The amendment was narrowly defeated.

Another Southern Republican feeling the pressure from the farm lobby was Alabama's Jeff Sessions, who has stood out among his colleagues for his opposition to the guest-worker provision in the bill.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), Alabama: Thus I have said it should never pass, and I have said that these actions are unworthy of the great Senate of the United States. I've said -- and I think correctly -- we should be ashamed of ourselves.

KWAME HOLMAN: But the leaders of the state's Farm Federation told Sessions that, without a new guest-worker program, growers would have to search out workers to replace those who would get deported, potentially devastating the industry. Sessions responded to a question about it yesterday.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: ... that's their leaders, big agribusiness, big chicken-processing plants. They want cheap labor. And they're not considering the interests of the United States of America. And I've been hired to try to consider that, and that's what I'm trying to do.

So we're not going to -- again I'll just repeat -- the big straw man argument out there is that those who are opposing this bill oppose immigration into America, and that's not so.

The Senate is moving steadily

KWAME HOLMAN: Reporter Mary Orndorff covers sessions for the Birmingham News. She sat in on a meeting the senator had with the Farm Federation in March.

MARY ORNDORFF, The Birmingham News: They're with him on a lot of other issues, but they impressed upon him that they want a guest-worker provision to come along with the border security.

They have a need for agricultural workers. And it's their contention -- and I've reported them saying this over and over again -- that these are the kinds of jobs that they would not be able to fill if it weren't for immigrant labor, and they've expressed that opinion to him very directly. And this is one of those situations where I think they're going to agree to disagree.

KWAME HOLMAN: Not willing to back down from pressure and risking the ire of President Bush, who supports the parameters of the Senate bill, Sessions actually has stepped up his attacks in successive floor speeches.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: I do remain troubled, Mr. President, that the Senate is moving steadily, like a train down the tracks, to pass an immigration bill that is deeply flawed.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Birmingham News' Orndorff said Sessions has proven to be particularly passionate about this issue.

MARY ORNDORFF: He was a U.S. attorney and an attorney general. And a lot of things for Senator Sessions come back to the issue of the rule of law. And you've heard him say this several times: People who came into the country illegally should not be afforded any benefits of a legal status because, in his mind, it's a violation of the rule of law.

KWAME HOLMAN: This afternoon, Sessions used a procedural maneuver to try to derail the bill, claiming the cost of implementing it would violate budget rules.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS: This bill, indeed, is a tremendous budget-buster.

KWAME HOLMAN: He did not succeed.

Sessions' stance against the Senate bill puts him squarely in the camp of many House Republicans, who last year helped pass an enforcement-only bill that criminalizes illegal status, cracks down on the hiring of the undocumented, and steps up border security. It contained no guest-worker program.

Though he may lose the battle in the Senate, Sessions is likely to have another chance to alter the bill when negotiations begin with the House.

With the two chambers so far apart, compromising on a bill will be difficult, and South Carolina's Graham wants dissenting Republicans to get in line.

SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM: As to the Republican dynamic here, our president has chosen to lead on this. He has embraced the concepts of the Senate bill. I don't want my own party to marginalize the president on an issue of great national importance.

KWAME HOLMAN: But with President Bush's approval ratings at all-time lows, many House Republicans, already upset with the Senate's approach to reform, may be reluctant to push for a bill that could upset their constituents five months before the November elections.