Senate puts off immigration action
Senate puts off immigration action
By JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, Associated Press Writer Mon
May 21, 6:41 PM ET
WASHINGTON - Senate leaders agreed Monday that they
would wait until June to take final action on a
bipartisan plan to give millions of unlawful
immigrants legal status.
The measure, which also tightens border security and
workplace enforcement measures, unites a group of
influential liberals, centrists and conservatives and
has White House backing, but it has drawn criticism
from across the political spectrum. In a nod to that
opposition, Senate leaders won't seek to complete it
before a hoped-for Memorial Day deadline.
"It would be to the best interests of the Senate ...
that we not try to finish this bill this week," said
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (news, bio, voting
record), D-Nev., as the chamber began debate on the
volatile issue. "I think we could, but I'm afraid the
conclusion wouldn't be anything that anyone wanted."
The bipartisan compromise cleared its first hurdle
Monday with a bipartisan Senate vote to begin debate
on a separate immigration measure. Still, it faces
significant obstacles as lawmakers seek dozens of
modifications to its key elements.
Republicans want to make the bill tougher on the
nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.
Democrats want to change a new temporary worker
program and reorder priorities in a merit-based system
for future immigration that weights employability over
The unlikely coalition that brokered the deal, led by
Sens. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and Jon Kyl (news,
bio, voting record), R-Ariz., is plotting to protect
the agreement from "deal-breaker" changes that would
sap its support. The group will hold daily meetings
starting Tuesday to determine whether proposed
revisions would sink what they are calling their
"We have to try our very best to work together to get
something that will actually pass," Kyl said.
Among the first changes to be debated will be a
proposal by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (news, bio, voting
record), D-N.M., to shrink the temporary worker
program created by the compromise plan. Some lawmakers
in both parties consider the initiative, which would
provide at least 400,000 guest worker visas annually,
Others charge it's impractical and unfair to
immigrants, because it would allow them to stay only
temporarily in the U.S. without guaranteeing them a
chance to gain legal status.
"We must not create a law that guarantees a permanent
underclass, people who are here to work in low-wage,
low-skilled jobs but do not have the chance to put
down roots or benefit from the opportunities of
American citizenship," Reid said.
Reid called the measure a "starting point," but said
he had reservations about it.
Conservative critics denounced the proposal's quick
granting of legal status to millions of unlawful
Sen. Jeff Sessions (news, bio, voting record), R-Ala.,
said the measure's so-called "point system" doesn't do
enough to guarantee that future immigration will serve
the country's economic needs.
"I'm nervous about this thing," said Sessions, who
voted not to go forward with the debate. He called the
point scheme "bait" to get conservatives to embrace
the measure, and accused Republicans of compromising
too much on an outline drafted by the White House in
late March to attract GOP support.
"I'm disappointed almost heartbroken because we
made some progress toward getting to this new
framework, but the political wheeling and dealing and
compromising and splitting the baby has resulted in a
circumstance that, you know, we just didn't get far
enough," Sessions said.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (news, bio, voting record),
R-Texas, who also opposed opening debate, announced
she would seek to alter the bill to mandate that
illegal immigrants go back to their home countries
before gaining legal status.
Under the proposal, that requirement only applies to
heads of households seeking green cards and a path to
citizenship. Others here unlawfully could obtain visas
to live and work in the U.S. indefinitely without
Kennedy, called the plan "strong, realistic and fair."
"For each of us who crafted it, there are elements
that we strongly support and elements we believe could
be improved. No one believes this is a perfect bill,"
The White House has begun an active lobbying effort to
drum up support for the measure, especially among
Republicans who voted against an immigration overhaul
President Bush is still hoping to sign the bill by
summer's end, said Tony Fratto, a White House
"This is a very high priority for the president,"
Fratto told reporters in Crawford, Texas. "We know
that this is an emotional issue for members on both
sides of political parties and both sides of the
ideological spectrum, but we hope that we can find
Conservatives in the House, whose opposition helped
kill an immigration overhaul last year, began laying
down markers in anticipation of their own debate,
expected only if the Senate completes its measure.
Rep. Dan Lungren (news, bio, voting record), R-Calif.,
unveiled legislation he said was "an alternative to
several of the large holes in the so-called Senate
It would send home illegal immigrants who had been in
the U.S. for fewer than five years and bar them from
gaining lawful status.
Those in the country five years or more would be able
to get a "blue card" to live and work legally in the
U.S. after paying a $1,000 fine and learning English
and American civics, but they could not bring their
families. Blue card holders would have to leave the
country to apply for legal residency.
In contrast, the bipartisan Senate compromise would
allow illegal immigrants in the country by the
beginning of this year to adjust their status.