The Senate passed legislation that would create a new guest worker program and grant amnesty to some illegal immigrants, setting up a fight with House members who would send anyone in the country illegally back to their homes. The Senate vote was 62-36.
The Senate bill, like the measure the House passed earlier, calls for tighter border security. The Senate version includes the construction of 370 miles of triple-layer fencing along the Mexican border while the House bill would provide 700 miles of two-layer fences.
The House-passed legislation would make it a felony for any immigrant to be in the country illegally or for a U.S. citizen to “assist, encourage, direct or induce a person to enter or attempt to enter or remain in the United States illegally.”
“This is the most far-reaching immigration reform in our history,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., following the Senate bill's passage. “It is a comprehensive and realistic attempt to solve the real-world problems that have festered too long in our broken immigration system.”
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who was allied with Kennedy in the fight, said the legislation would help make sense of a situation in which an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants have found jobs, many of them on farms and in cotton gins, in this country.
“Some Americans believe we must find all these millions, round them up and send them back to the countries they came from,” said McCain, who appears to be one of the leading contenders for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. “I don't know how you do that. And I don't know why you would want to.”
Observers say the Senate legislation faces rough going when House and Senate members sit down to reconcile their differences in a conference committee.
Even senators who favor a guest worker program fault the measure for granting a path to citizenship or “rewarding” those of have been in the country illegally for more than five years if they pay fines, fees and back taxes and learn English.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said the legislation was a “bad bill” that “put more emphasis on amnesty than on border security.”
The Georgia Republican proposed an amendment that would have changed provisions in the legislation allowing one-hour workdays to count as full days for helping illegal workers qualify for amnesty. The amendment was defeated 62 to 35.
“There are many hard-working Americans across this country who work long hours each day, some in multiple jobs, to provide for their families,” said Chambliss. “It doesn't seem fair to those hard-working Americans to allow illegal immigrants to obtain the prized possession of U.S. citizenship for one-hour work days.
“For many around the world, U.S. citizenship is the pot at the end of the rainbow they spend their lives chasing. And in this bill, we are going to give that away to those who worked 150 hours over a two-year period in agriculture. I don't think that is right and I don't think it is reflective of the values most Americans hold.”
The American Farm Bureau Federation, meanwhile, said it supports significant provisions of the bill and applauded the Senate's efforts to ensure that farmers and ranchers “will have the labor they need to harvest the nation's crops.
“Farm Bureau supports tighter borders and tougher sanctions on those who knowingly hire illegal aliens,” said AFBF President Bob Stallman. “But such provisions must be coupled with a modern, workable H-2a program as well as a transition program that provides us farm labor while the new H-2a program is implemented.”
Without comprehensive immigration reform, Stallman said, U.S. agriculture runs the risk of losing between $5 billion and $9 billion per year in lost fruit and vegetable production. AFBF also believes net farm income could also be depressed by up to $5 billion per year. “That is why it is imperative that any effort to address the illegal immigration problem respect the needs of U.S. agriculture.”
The Senate bill calls for hiring 1,000 new Border Patrol agents for a total additional 3,000 agents this year. It would add 14,000 Border Patrol agents by 2011 to the current force of 11,300 agents. Besides the 370 miles of fencing, it authorizes 500 miles of vehicle barriers on the Mexican border. Supporters of the bill said those were needed to keep Senate conservatives from scuttling the reform measure.
The legislation would provide 200,000 new temporary guest-worker visas a year, while creating a special guest worker program for an estimated 1.5 million immigrant farm workers, who could also receive legal permanent residency.
One of its most controversial provisions would divide current illegal immigrants into three categories:
Illegal aliens here five years or longer would be allowed to stay and apply for citizenship after paying back taxes and learning English.
Those here two to five years would have to go to a border entry point and file an application to return.
Those in the country less than two years would have to leave.