Hastert & Frist: don't make illegal immigration a felony
Apr 11, 9:12 PM EDT
GOP Chiefs Don't Want Immigrants Charged
By DAVID ESPO
AP Special Correspondent
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The two top Republicans in
Congress, confronted with internal party divisions as
well as large public demonstrations, said Tuesday they
intend to pass immigration legislation that does not
subject illegal aliens to prosecution as felons.
A written statement by House Speaker Dennis Hastert of
Illinois and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of
Tennessee, did not say whether they would seek
legislation subjecting illegal immigrants to
misdemeanor prosecution or possibly a civil penalty
such as a fine.
"It remains our intent to produce a strong border
security bill that will not make unlawful presence in
the United States a felony," the two men said. An
estimated 11 million men, women and children are in
the United States illegally.
The Republican-controlled House passed legislation
late last year that is generally limited to border
security measures. It makes illegal immigrants subject
to felony prosecution.
Senate efforts to write a broader bill - covering
border security, a guest worker program and a path to
citizenship for many of the 11 million in the country
illegally - are gridlocked with lawmakers on a
Frist has said he intends to bring the issue back to
the Senate floor, although he stopped short of a flat
commitment and the prospects for passage of an
election-year immigration bill are uncertain.
The late-afternoon statement by the top GOP leaders in
both houses came after days of large street
demonstrations by protesters opposed to criminal
penalties for illegal immigrants.
Additionally, in a Washington Post-ABC News poll
published during the day, only 20 percent of those
questioned said they favored declaring illegal
immigrants to be felons and barring them from work.
More than 60 percent indicated support for the general
approach envisioned in the leading Senate proposal. It
includes a requirement that illegal immigrants be
required to pay a fine and back taxes as part of a
process of qualifying for eventual citizenship.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D- Mass., dismissed the
proposal by the GOP leadership, saying: "Actions speak
louder than words, and there's no running away from
the fact that the Republican House passed a bill, and
Senator Frist offered one, that criminalizes
"This debate shouldn't be about making criminals out
of hardworking families ... but rather about
strengthening our national security and enacting a law
that reflects our best values and our humanity,"
The question of a penalty has dogged the debate for
months and been the subject of intense political
GOP aides pointed out that Rep. James Sensenbrenner,
R-Wis., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, had
tried during debate on the House floor to reduce the
penalty to a misdemeanor.
The attempt failed on a vote of 257-164, with 65
Republicans and 191 Democrats opposed. Many of the
Democrats, including members of the Hispanic
Congressional Caucus, indicated at the time they
favored no criminal penalties, and opposed the
In their statement, Hastert and Frist said the
Democrats who did so had demonstrated a "lack of
compassion." In addition, they renewed the charge that
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid is seeking to
"block action on immigration legislation."
Reid has denied the charges.
While they leveled their accusations at Reid, the GOP
leadership has been struggling with internal
Several House Republican conservatives have
vociferously denounce Senate proposals as amnesty for
And while Frist praised the leading Senate proposal
last week as a "huge breakthrough," he was the only
member of the GOP leadership to embrace it. Two other
members of the group, Sens. Jon Kyl of Arizona and Kay
Bailey Hutchison of Texas, voiced their opposition.
Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania opposes the
measure, according to a spokesman.
Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, who heads the
party's senatorial campaign committee, declined this
week through an aide to take a position on the bill.
A spokesman for Sen. Mitch McConnell, the
second-ranking Republican, sidestepped a question by
saying the Kentucky lawmaker favors a comprehensive approach.