GWEN IFILL: The Senate began its internal debate on immigration reform today, even as protesters took to city streets around the country for a third straight day to oppose a strict new immigration enforcement bill.
In Texas and California, high school students walked out of class. In Denver on Saturday, thousands marched, waving Mexican flags, the same day that half a million people took to the streets in Los Angeles. Today, the protest reached the steps of the Capitol Building.
The House bill, passed last December, would declare all illegal immigrants felons and it would impose tough new penalties on those who hire and help any of the more than 11 million illegal immigrants now in the United States. President Bush supports combining tough enforcement with a program to allow immigrants to stay in the country temporarily as guest workers.
GWEN IFILL: Speaking at a naturalization ceremony in Washington today, he urged Congress to endorse his plan.
GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Congress needs to pass a comprehensive bill that secures the border, improves interior enforcement, and creates a temporary-worker program to strengthen our security and our economy. Completing a comprehensive bill is not going to be easy.
GWEN IFILL: The difficulty in achieving that compromise was on display today, as the Senate Judiciary Committee struggled to agree on their own version of immigration reform. Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona and Democrat Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts have proposed allowing illegal immigrants to become eligible for permanent residency after working six years.
SEN. EDWARD KENNEDY (D), Massachusetts: This is important for our national security, to get people that are being exploited out into the sunlight and the sunshine of legality. It's going to make a big, major difference.
GWEN IFILL: A competing proposal, sponsored by Republican Senators John Cornyn and Jon Kyl, would allow illegal immigrants to work legally for up to five years, then leave the country and reapply for legal reentry. But enforcement, Cornyn said, is key.
SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), Texas: If we don't actually believe that we can enforce whatever it is that this committee and this Congress passes when it comes to immigration reform, then we might as well give up right now.
Because I think the American people are thinking, fool me once, you know, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. In other words, I think that the only way -- the only way -- that we are going to be able to get the confidence of the American people when it comes to the economic issues and workforce issues is if they believe we're absolutely serious about border security and about enforcement, including worksite verification.
GWEN IFILL: Committee Chairman Arlen Specter has come up with his own middle-of-the-road approach, which he conceded would be difficult to pass.
SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R-PA), Chairman of the Judiciary Committee: It is a good deal more comfortable, in many ways, to be a member of this committee than to be chairman. Because, as a member of the committee, you can take a look at what's proposed, and vote your druthers, and always take the high ground.
That's a nice place to be, on what you think is the high ground. The chairman has the responsibility of trying to craft a bill which will pass.
GWEN IFILL: And so, just a short while ago, the chairman did craft a bill that passed. The Judiciary Committee approved a version of the immigration bill that Senator Specter called a realistic accommodation. It heads for debate on the full Senate floor tomorrow.
Here to discuss that and the growing debate unfolding all around the country, we turn Xiomara Corpeno, director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. She helped organize Saturday's protest there.
And Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors stiffer enforcement.
Ms. Corpeno, we saw those crowds of people taking to the streets all around the country this weekend, and it begs the question whether this issue, which we saw wrestled with in the Judiciary Committee, is a Washington issue or something that's percolating from outside in.
XIOMARA CORPENO, Director, Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles: Well, I think that it's important to know that the American people want comprehensive immigration reform. They understand that immigration is about family unity, about bringing families together.
And it's important that the people in Washington are listening to the people in general. And you saw half a million people -- we estimated over a million people participated throughout the entire day. And they want immigration reform; they want legalization, with a path to citizenship, not a temporary-work program.
GWEN IFILL: So are you suggesting, then, that there is no room for status quo anymore in this debate?
XIOMARA CORPENO: Well, it depends on what you mean by status quo. I think the status quo is that people recognize that immigrants are valuable to our economy -- they are part of the fabric of American society -- and that we need to recognize it in a legal way, and that's, you know, through passing a comprehensive immigration reform.
GWEN IFILL: Ira Mehlman, you probably wouldn't disagree with the description of the need for a comprehensive immigration reform bill, but what I gather is that you think that perhaps there should be more done than what the Senate may have agreed on today.
IRA MEHLMAN, Federation for American Immigration Reform: Absolutely. The focus has to be on enforcement.
We have failed to enforce the immigration laws of this country for decades now. And the result has been the undermining of the middle class in the United States.
If you saw Paul Krugman's column in today's New York Times, he wrote about the fact that, for the vast majority of the American public, immigration doesn't help at all. If you are a lower-skilled worker in this country, it's, in fact, undermined your standard of living. And that benefits accrue to the immigrants themselves and to the direct employers.
And what you saw on Saturday were the illegal immigrants coming out and saying, "We want to be able to stay here because it serves our interests." What members of Congress are going to be hearing from are the voters of this country come next November, if they go ahead and pass a massive amnesty and a massive guest-worker program that really undermines and decimates the middle class in the United States.
GWEN IFILL: Mr. Mehlman, if you listened to the senator today -- and I'm sure you did -- they said they are not approving amnesty in the compromise bill they came out with, and what they were trying to do, actually, is to find a workable compromise. What do you say to that?
IRA MEHLMAN: Well, they've been going through all sorts of contortions not to use the word "amnesty," but the fact of the matter is any piece of legislation that allows people to remain here for up to six years as guest workers is a de facto amnesty, simply on a six-year time delay.
The idea that all of these people, after having been here as illegal aliens and then being here as guest workers, at the end of the six years that they're all going to say, "Thank you very much; we're all going home now," is absurd.
It is simply an amnesty that's going to be on a six-year time delay, so that the members of Congress today don't have to go home and face the voters and tell them that they rewarded 12 million people who broke our immigration laws and, at the same time, they're undermining middle-class workers; they're going to overwhelm our schools, our public health care system.
That's not what they want to go home and tell the public, but, in fact, that's what they're proposing.
GWEN IFILL: So, Ms. Corpeno, what is your response to the charge that you just heard from Mr. Mehlman that these kinds of laws are trying to reward law-breakers?
XIOMARA CORPENO: It's not true. I mean, there's an exorbitant amount of fines that people have to pay and still prerequisites that they have to beat. Not everybody who is here undocumented is going to be eligible for this program. I think that people need to be clear about that: It's not an amnesty at all.
And I think that we also have to talk, if we want to talk about -- a lot of middle-class families, small-business owners have benefited from immigrants coming into this country, documented or undocumented.
A lot of people in Los Angeles actually closed their business down so that they and their workers could participate in Saturday's march. And I think that we shouldn't forget that.
I mean, I think it's so important that we realize this is not an amnesty; this is really what's right. People have been here for 20 years. This is their home. There are not legal channels for people to come here legally. People say, "Why don't they follow the legal channels?"
Some family members are waiting up to 20 years to be reunited, and they're not able to be reunited, so we need this program. We need it now. Twelve million people in the country without documents, I mean that's -- it's just preposterous in a first-world nation you have people in, you know, kind of in the underground.
I mean, that's preposterous. We really need to bring these people out of the shadows. They need to come out. And we need to provide them with the safety net that they will be protected, their rights are protected, and that they're recognized, and that they're going to be able to become citizens and also be able to vote.
They already contribute monetarily $7 billion into Social Security, money that they'll never see back, and so it's real important.
GWEN IFILL: Pardon me, I'm sorry.
Mr. Mehlman, this weekend's turnout was helped, apparently, because of the involvement of the church, evangelical people, as well as the Roman Catholic Church, who objected to provisions in the House bill that would have made these -- criminalized, I guess, some of these violations of overstaying visas and other things like that. Do you worry at all that your position is at odds with the religious community?
IRA MEHLMAN: Well, you know, I'm not sure that the leaders of these churches necessarily speak for the rank and file. After Cardinal Mahoney here in Los Angeles came out with his Ash Wednesday speech, there was a story in the Los Angeles Times the next day that a vast number of his parishioners very much disagreed with the position that he had taken.
You know, Cardinal Mahoney and these religious leaders are essentially asking us to give charity with other people's resources. They are saying to people: We're sorry. We think there are people on the other side of the border who have a case that is more compelling, and we're going to ask you to sacrifice your job, or part of your wages, or your children's education.
There is no religious or ethical system that permits you to give charity with other people's resources. If the church wants to give charity with its own resources, that's one thing.
But when they start telling other people within the community, you know, "We're sorry; you're no longer going to be to work as a contractor in the city because there are 20 people waiting in the parking lot at Home Depot who are prepared to do that job for half the price."
Then they're giving charity with somebody else's resources. That's not moral, and that's not ethical.
IFILL: Ms. Corpeno, what is your response on this idea of the religious role helping in turnout and in trying to get people to show up for these events and the moral, I guess, factor, which was worked into this?
XIOMARA CORPENO: Well, I think that the church coming out and saying that they supported immigrants, that they were not going to abide by any law that prevented them, just even from serving immigrant communities -- serving them mass, right -- I think it was an important step.
I think it helped galvanize a lot of people, garnered a lot of support inside the immigrant community, but then outside the immigrant community, as well. I think it was an important step.
I was actually at that mass, and it was really powerful. I mean, the Times, I feel, yes, they want to sell a story, so they're going to put the opposition, but there was a lot of people who walked out of that mass that I heard talking that said, "Oh, my God, I can't believe he said that. That's really wonderful."
And it was from people who are legal, permanent residents, people who were citizens. And so I think people are on the right side.
GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you, also, Ms. Corpeno, about something that is in this Senate bill that is going to the floor. There are a lot of amendments which were added today.
One of them would create a special class of what Dianne Feinstein, your senator, called a blue card, just for agriculture workers and industry-specific exemption. Is that the right direction, to just take the people in a certain industry and say, "OK, they can stay and others may have to go"?
XIOMARA CORPENO: Well, what you're speaking about is the ag-jobs bill, which the United Farm Workers have worked on for years. And, you know, they've actually really -- they're a special class of workers.
I think agricultural workers are very different, because it's a temporary work situation for them. It's by seasons. And so they kind of -- you know, the work right now, when we're looking at legalization, most of the time, it's through your employers. But since these are seasonal workers, they have to have a special program. And I think for agricultural workers, of course, it's the right way.
GWEN IFILL: And, Mr. Mehlman, I want to ask you: Today, President Bush said that any laws should not force America to choose between being a welcoming society and a lawful one. So far, as far as you've seen this debate develop, the bill that is being sent to the Senate floor tomorrow and the bill that's already passed the House, are they striking that balance?
IRA MEHLMAN: Well, you know, America already is a very welcoming society. We admit more legal immigrants than the rest of the world combined.
The problem is, no matter how wide we open the doors, there are always going to be more people who want to come here. And, you know, the reason we have immigration laws in the first place is because we need to protect the interests of people in this country. You know, if you look at immigration solely from the perspective of the immigrants, it's always wonderful. I mean, let's face it: Nobody comes here unless it's in their interest to be here.
But what we have to look out for and what the government has failed to look out for is the impact that it has on everybody else in this society. And what we have done is decimated many middle-class trades.
You know, you look around a place like Los Angeles and most other major cities, the construction industry, which used to be a solid middle-class trade, Americans lined up for those jobs. Today, it is mostly a low-wage job dominated by immigrant workers, many of whom are here illegally.
You know, at what point does the government say, "You know what? We have to protect the interest of workers in this country. We can't allow endless numbers of people to come in here and simply undermine our middle class."
GWEN IFILL: All right. Well, the debate continues on the Senate floor tomorrow. Thank you, both, for joining us today.
XIOMARA CORPENO: Thank you.
IRA MEHLMAN: Thanks.