An Immigration Brawl
This week's debate will have plenty of antics and agendas
Immigration seems to have a struck a nerve in Americans of all stripes. Frustration on the right has fueled the rapid growth of the Minutemen, vigilantes who want to help close America's porous borders. Liberals are exercised, too. Thousands of people have recently gathered in Chicago, Washington, and Los Angeles to protest proposals they say could make it a crime to give a cup of soup to a wayward illegal immigrant. On April 10, activists hope to shutter restaurants and convenience stores by encouraging some of America's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants to play hooky from work. But that may all look tame compared with what's expected in the Senate this week, when immigration reform proposals go to the floor for debate in a midterm-election year. "It's an exciting time," says Tamar Jacoby of the Manhattan Institute. "But it's going to be one hell of a food fight."
And it will have higher stakes than the average cafeteria brawl. The House passed a mostly punitive measure in December; it would throw up 700 miles of steel fencing along the 2,000-mile Southwest border, allow state and local officials to detain immigrants without visas, and make it a felony--instead of a civil penalty--to be caught on U.S. soil with an expired visa or no visa at all. "This was a message to the Senate that we'd better stay tough on enforcement," says Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn--and perhaps a symbolic statement to angry constituents. The House refused to even consider proposals that would allow employers to hire temporary guest workers, an idea that's been championed by President Bush. "The assumption from many of the bill's supporters," says Frank Sharry of the National Immigration Forum, an immigrant-rights group, "was that the Senate would do right by us."
Fragile. But will it? Republicans in the Senate are fiercely divided on the temporary-worker issue, and those with presidential ambitions crop up on both sides of the debate. Sen. Bill Frist has already introduced a brawny enforcement bill that omits any mention of guest workers. Moderate Republican Sen. Arlen Specter, meanwhile, hopes he can hold together a fragile coalition in the Judiciary Committee long enough to pass a bill that would allow thousands of future guest workers and most of the illegal immigrants already here to become citizens, while creating more robust workplace immigration enforcement. Large parts of his measure drew inspiration from a proposal crafted by Sen. John McCain; if Specter succeeds, then his bill, not Frist's, will be the starting point for debate in the full Senate.
Expect some gonzo antics on the floor. Already on the agenda: tough proposals to fence off the whole Southwest border and deny citizenship to babies born to illegal immigrants and a liberal amendment to grant in-state tuition to college students who aren't U.S. citizens. Republicans will be skittishly eyeing religious leaders who have been critical of the House bill. In a recent editorial, Roman Catholic Cardinal Roger Mahony, head of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, wrote that "Christ instructs us to clothe the naked, feed the poor, and welcome the stranger." But in an election year, it's clear that not everyone in the Senate agrees.
This story appears in the April 3, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.