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Immigration Battles Continue in Deeply Divided Senate

May 19, 2006 at 6:20 PM EDT

KWAME HOLMAN: President Bush renewed his call this week for Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform that includes a temporary worker program and a path toward eventual citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants.

But to placate agitated conservatives within his own party, the president placed a priority on enforcing border controls to slow the flow of illegal crossings.

He followed his prime-time Oval Office address on Monday with a visit yesterday to the Arizona border. He repeated his call to bring in 6,000 National Guard troops to bolster border security and endorsed building fences and other barriers, as well.

GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: I believe, in order for the Border Patrol to be able to effectively do their job, we’ve got to have a plan in place that will reduce the people who are trying to sneak across.

Conservatives dig in

KWAME HOLMAN: But at the Capitol today, as senators continued work on their version of a reform bill, Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions, a reliable ally of the president's on most issues, denounced any plan to give preference to immigrants who are in this country illegally.

SEN. JEFF SESSIONS (R), Alabama: It is unworthy of the Senate. It should never pass, never become law of the United States of America. It does not meet our highest ideals. It does not create a system that's consistent with the national interest of the United States.

KWAME HOLMAN: Session's sentiments were somewhat ironic, considering that he and his conservative colleagues successfully tweaked the Senate's immigration bill during debate this week, making it more to their liking. For instance, a Sessions amendment to construct an additional 370 miles of fencing along the Southwest border and put up 500 miles of vehicle barriers passed with a strong majority, despite some resistance from Democrats.

SEN. DICK DURBIN (D), Illinois: What we have here has become a symbol for the right wing in American politics, the symbol of a fence, a fence between America and Mexico.

SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY (D), Massachusetts: Let's put the 1,800-mile fence down there and triple wire so now we can go -- show how tough we are on it.

Using the "a" word

KWAME HOLMAN: But Democrats sided with conservatives in an overwhelming vote to deny citizenship to anyone convicted of a felony, as well as those who ignore deportation orders.

SEN. JON KYL (R), Arizona: I think it reflects the will of the American people, that however we treat people who are here illegally, there are some limits.

KWAME HOLMAN: Louisiana Republican David Vitter wanted to go further and deny illegal immigrants any chance of obtaining citizenship under a guest-worker program.

SEN. DAVID VITTER (R), Louisiana: They're being treated better than the folks who have lived by the rules from the word "go," than the folks who are citizens through the legal immigration process, who had to pay taxes every step of the way.

KWAME HOLMAN: Even some Democrats agreed. West Virginia's Robert Byrd referred to the citizenship provision as amnesty.

SEN. ROBERT BYRD (D), West Virginia: I oppose this amnesty bill. I oppose it absolutely. I oppose it unequivocally.

KWAME HOLMAN: Arizona's John McCain, who strongly supports a path to citizenship for the undocumented, criticized his colleagues for using that volatile term.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: Call it amnesty. Call it a banana if you want to, but the fact is that it is earned citizenship.

And the reason why the opponents of this legislation keep calling it amnesty, because they know that, poll after poll after poll, that the majority of the American people say, "Let them earn their citizenship."

And when it is explained to the American people what we are requiring here -- a criminal background check, payment of back taxes, payment of a $2,000 fine, five or six years before getting in line behind everyone else in order to get a green card, and then another five years or more, depending on how this legislation comes out, eligibility for citizenship -- it is a perversion of the word "amnesty," Mr. President. And, frankly, I'm growing a little weary of it.

English as the official language?

KWAME HOLMAN: The Senate defeated David Vitter's amendment, as well as one from Georgia Republican Johnny Isakson that would have allowed debate on a guest-worker program only after the border was deemed secure.

And late this week, Oklahoma Republican James Inhofe proposed making English the national language of the United States. Arguing it would help unify the country, Inhofe's amendment would require immigrants seeking citizenship to demonstrate a "sufficient understanding of the English language for usage in everyday life."

SEN. JAMES INHOFE (R), Oklahoma: When we listen to the national anthem, "The rockets' red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that the flag was still there, the land of the free and the home of the brave," that is not an official anthem, that is not a common anthem, that is a national anthem. And this is our last chance to have English as the national language for America.

KWAME HOLMAN: Democrats argued the amendment could prevent those with limited fluency in English from getting language assistance. Democratic Leader Harry Reid was especially critical.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), Senate Minority Leader: I really believe this amendment is racist. I think it's directed basically to people who speak Spanish.

KWAME HOLMAN: But Inhofe's amendment passed, as did one from Colorado Democrat Ken Salazar that recognized English as the nation's "common and unifying language."

Aiming for Memorial Day

The debate over these largely symbolic amendments was evidence of the major challenges ahead for promoters of immigration reform. Arizona's Jon Kyl reminded colleagues that the House immigration bill, approved last December, contains no provision for legalization at all.

SEN. JON KYL: The notion of not granting amnesty to people who don't need it or not creating an automatic path to citizenship, it seems to me should be acceptable to our House colleagues. Now, some of them may not want to see these people go into a temporary-worker program, but that may need to be one of the compromises that they would agree to.

KWAME HOLMAN: The Senate resumes debate on Monday. Majority Leader Bill Frist hopes to pass an immigration bill by Memorial Day.