WASHINGTON – Sharing none of the Senate’s euphoria over its immigration plan, the congressman expected to be the House’s lead negotiator made clear Friday that he won’t accept any deal that includes an offer of citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants.
A day after the Senate adopted an overhaul that both toughens enforcement and liberalizes immigration laws, House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner predicted choppy negotiations ahead.
“I would like to see a bill passed and signed into law. However, I’m a realist,” the Wisconsin Republican said. “And given the fact the Senate and the House started miles apart, and as a result of some amendments that were offered in the Senate miles have become moons apart or oceans apart, this has made a difficult task even more so.”
Sensenbrenner was the lead architect of the stiff enforcement-only approach adopted by the House in December. Cast by turn as hero and villain for tough provisions in the bill such as 700 miles of border fencing and making unlawful presence a felony, he flatly labeled the Senate bill an amnesty.
“Amnesty is wrong because amnesty rewards someone for illegal behavior,” the conservative lawmaker said at a news conference.
The focus of the House-Senate talks should be first on beefing up security at the U.S.-Mexico border and enforcing employer sanctions to end the jobs magnet that powers illegal immigration, Sensenbrenner said.
After that, he said, House conservatives might be amenable to a guest worker program “if it does not contain an amnesty – but only if the employer sanctions and the increased border patrols are effective.”
The Bush administration already has moved to address border enforcement, White House press secretary Tony Snow said Friday, noting that the deployment of 6,000 National Guardsmen to the U.S.-Mexico border begins next week.
“A lot of House members have said we want to do border enforcement first,” Snow said. “It’s already happening, and in many ways what the president has proposed is far more aggressive . . . than anything that had been considered by either house and he’s not waiting for either side to sign a bill.”
Sensenbrenner’s enforcement-first approach, emblematic of where many House conservatives are right now, runs counter to the one taken by President Bush and the bipartisan coalition that maneuvered the Senate bill through a tricky legislative minefield.
They insist that illegal immigration can only be resolved in comprehensive fashion: By increasing enforcement; taking pressure off the border with a guest worker program; and placing most of the country’s estimated 12 million illegal immigrants on a course to citizenship.
“This is the most far-reaching immigration reform in our history,” said Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who played a pivotal role in shaping the Senate bill. “It is a comprehensive and realistic attempt to solve the real-world problems that have festered for too long in our broken immigration system.”
Bush will vigorously make his case to the congressional negotiators and doesn’t intend to cede ground, Snow said. “The president has laid out his principles. Is he going to back off his principles? No.”
Talks have yet to be scheduled, and lawmakers left town Friday for a weeklong Memorial Day recess.
The vast Senate bill, which tops 700 pages, could suffer as people begin reading the fine print more closely.
Some senators complained bitterly Thursday about being asked to vote on a last-minute manager’s amendment whose 115 pages included instructions requiring the U.S. government to consult with Mexico before constructing any border barriers and new delays on implementation of a controversial passport requirement for people entering or leaving the United States from Mexico and Canada.
Even during the two-week Senate debate, some supporters of the legislation raised key concerns about the workability of the plan, particularly its three-tiered system for dealing with illegal immigrants. Those who arrived after January 2004 would be given no legal status; those here two to five years would have to briefly leave the U.S. to apply to return on a work visa; and those here five years or more would be placed on the most direct path to legal permanent residence and eventual citizenship after working here for another six years, paying $3,250 in fines and back taxes, and undergoing background checks.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., sought unsuccessfully earlier this week to strike the three-tiered system in favor of legalization for virtually all illegal immigrants. The three-tiered plan, she said, would be a nightmare for the federal government to implement and would spark widespread fraud by immigrants trying to demonstrate they’d lived here at least five years. And it would leave the illegal immigration problem only partially addressed, she said, suggesting that the 1.6 million illegal immigrants here two years or less would be unlikely to leave the country.
“I don’t believe it is workable. I believe it is subject to fraud,” said Feinstein, who nonetheless voted for the Senate bill.
Sensenbrenner agreed with her assessment, saying the Senate plan would “result in gross document fraud, because if someone can prove they’ve been here illegally for five years, then they can get the reward of citizenship by doing a few things.”
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who managed the floor debate and will also be a key negotiator, acknowledged that some less-than-perfect elements had been accepted in order to hold the fragile coalition in support of the legislation.
Another item of concern for some: That the Senate’s temporary worker program, once envisioned to permit 400,000 foreigners in on work visas every year was slashed to 200,000 by senators concerned about protecting jobs for American workers. With the illegal immigrant population swelling by more than a half million every year, a guest worker program that’s too limited in scope and doesn’t provide easy access to work visas won’t help put a halt to illegal crossings, some contend.