A GOP Faceoff over Illegal Immigration ; Immigration Reform Splits the Party So Deeply It Could Stall Legislation This Year

By Gail Russell Chaddock writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, March 29, 2006 | Go to article overview

A GOP Faceoff over Illegal Immigration ; Immigration Reform Splits the Party So Deeply It Could Stall Legislation This Year


Gail Russell Chaddock writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Senate majority leader Bill Frist and GOP Sen. Sam Brownback stood together on trade, war, judges, guns, energy, abortion, and war, but they are bookends in this week's debate on "earned" amnesty for illegal aliens - the toughest issue before the Senate this year.

They illustrate the rift that runs through both parties, but especially the GOP, which controls both the House and Senate. That rift yawns so large that it could keep Congress from passing any immigration legislation this year.

Senator Frist, a prospect for a presidential run in 2008, wants a "virtual barrier" to secure borders first. It's about what it means to be a nation, he says: "A nation that can't secure its borders can't secure its destiny or administer its laws."

Senator Brownback, also a prospect for 2008, backs border security, but says he also wants a way to get 11 million undocumented people into a legalized status. It's about human dignity, he says: "One of the key measures in any society is what you do for the so-called least of these."

Polls show a strong majority of Republican voters oppose amnesty for those in the country illegally, but business groups, a core GOP constituency, want to assure a supply of low-wage workers for agriculture, construction, restaurant, and other services.

For Frist, who stumbled badly over his handling of the Terri Schiavo debacle a year ago, it's a chance to lead his party through a political mine field. "I'm here to solve problems, not stand around," he said in a statement on the floor of the Senate early Monday afternoon.

Frist had given the Senate Judiciary Committee an ultimatum: Produce a bill by end-of-day Monday, or the Senate would take up his own immigration reform plan. Brownback is one of four Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee, including chairman Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania, to side with Democrats in a bid for comprehensive immigration reform this session of Congress.

The Judiciary Committee's bill opens a path to citizenship for at least 11 million people living in the United States illegally. It allows those who were in the US before 2004 to get a temporary work visa, if they pay a $1,000 fine and clear a criminal background check. After six years, they would be eligible for permanent legal residence, if they learn English and pay back taxes and another $1,000 fine.

Frist's alternative, still in play, focuses exclusively on border security. That means more boots on the borders, unmanned aerial vehicles, cameras, sensors, and "a virtual barrier to cover every mile of our 1,950-mile long border with Mexico." (The House bill also includes a 700-mile wall along the southern border.)

The Frist bill also requires employers to verify the legal status of their workers, using a federal electronic database. Those employers engaging in a pattern of hiring illegal workers would face up to six months in jail. Those living in the country illegally are guilty of a misdemeanor; under the House bill, it's a felony.

Right up until the last vote late Monday afternoon, prospects for completing the complex bill looked unlikely. In the end, committee chairman Specter, as well as GOP Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Mike DeWine of Ohio, and Brownback of Kansas lined up with all eight Democrats on the panel to complete a bill. …

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