Lawmakers reviving push for immigration overhaul
By BEN GOAD
The Press Enterprise.com
12:29 AM PDT on Friday, September 7, 2007
WASHINGTON – Lawmakers seeking to overhaul the nation's immigration policies on Thursday launched a last-ditch effort to revive and pass sweeping legislation, months after a similar effort was pronounced dead.
But even some supporters of a massive bill that would change 16 federal laws that govern immigration issues — including one of the two lawmakers who introduced the legislation — acknowledged their tactics could be futile.
Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., co-author of the bipartisan act, apparently misspoke, referring to the bill in the past tense during testimony before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law.
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He then said he is less than optimistic about the chances of getting the controversial measures, which include a path to citizenship for people in the country illegally, through a sharply divided Congress.
“I know it's unlikely, frankly, and I think that's too bad,” Flake said.
Still, Rep. Joe Baca, D-Rialto, and others spoke in favor of the legislation during a hearing Thursday afternoon before the subcommittee. The legislation aims to tighten border security, increase enforcement of laws against employing illegal immigrants and add a large new guest-worker program that would permit millions of undocumented immigrants to stay and work in the United States and eventually become citizens.
“Congress has a responsibility to deal with our broken immigration system, and we cannot ignore the immigration crisis in hopes it will go away or solve itself,” Baca testified before the panel. “Congress needs to take action.”
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., who introduced the bill with Flake, is a member of the immigration subcommittee. He was more positive about the chances of passing a reform bill. And Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill., a proponent of overhauling the immigration laws, said he hoped Thursday's hearing would jump-start the reform campaign.
Gutierrez and Flake introduced the bill in March, but it was placed on the back burner, when an unlikely coalition of Republicans and Democrats in the Senate announced the so-called “grand compromise” — legislation they felt could pass both houses.
Opponents derided the compromise legislation as a free pass for criminals and demanded that undocumented immigrants be held to the same standards as other immigrants trying to gain entry to the country through the appropriate channels.
Supporters described the initiative as allowing undocumented immigrants to earn their citizenship by paying fines, learning English and returning to their home countries to “touch back” before re-entering the U.S. legally.
President Bush urged senators to come to an agreement, signaling that he wanted to pass immigration legislation.
In the end, neither side would back down.
The bill died after failing a key test in June when supporters were unable to get enough votes to end debate over the bill, which would have set the stage for a final vote to pass the legislation.
The current bill calls for some of the same things as the compromise legislation that died. Both include a pathway to citizenship for those already here illegally.
Thursday's hearing about the act echoed arguments about the previous effort.
Both sides debated whether the bill would provide amnesty to the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, said the bill essentially sells citizenship for $2,500 — the amount of the proposed fines. He derided the touch-back provision as “a scenic bus ride.”
“I think we need to have this debate but I'd like to have it after the election,” King said.
LaHood lashed back, asserting it would take decades to deport everyone already in the country illegally. He said lawmakers have no choice but to provide “a legal opportunity to play by the rules” and attain legal status.
The debate endures as the Bush era draws to an end.
Bush's support puts some pressure on conservatives to compromise on the bill. But if a Republican who doesn't support the bill or a Democrat succeeds Bush, what little support the legislation has enjoyed among conservative lawmakers would likely vanish, experts said.
Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors greater enforcement of current immigration laws, and Douglas Rivlin, spokesman for the National Immigration Forum, which supports a path to citizenship, agreed that the passage of smaller, less controversial elements of the bill might be possible.
But Democrats favoring the overhaul said it's all or nothing.
“We need to push comprehensive reform,” Baca said. “Piecemealing is not the answer.”
Reach Ben Goad at 202-661-8422 or bgoad@PE.com