Thursday, June 14, 2007
Security Is Focus of Revised Effort on Immigration
Security Is Focus of Revised Effort on Immigration
By ROBERT PEAR
NY Times: June 14, 2007
WASHINGTON, June 13 — The White House and senators from both parties mapped out possible changes in a comprehensive immigration bill on Wednesday, so they could better portray it as a way to bolster national security rather than to grant amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants.
The changes would include a guarantee of several billion dollars for tougher border security and law enforcement and would allow the government to take more time before granting work permits to illegal immigrants who seek legal status.
The proposals were drafted as part of an effort to recast the debate on immigration and revive the bipartisan bill, which was pulled from the Senate floor late last week. They come a day after President Bush met with senators to try to persuade those on the fence to support the measure.
As the White House shifts its tactics on the bill, immigrant rights' groups have begun their own push to move the legislation forward by emphasizing the benefits of immigration.
Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, who was haggling with senators over possible amendments, said: "This is a national security bill. We are fixing a national security problem."
Mr. Gutierrez said the bill would eliminate a threat to national security that arises because "we have millions of people working in our country, and we don't know who they are."
Despite the proposed changes and the effort to promote the bill as part of the war on terrorism, the provision that has generated the most criticism from conservative Republicans — a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants — remains.
President Bush is expected to depict the bill as a way to secure the borders and curtail the influx of illegal immigrants in remarks Thursday to the Associated Builders and Contractors, a trade group for construction companies.
Another trade group, the National Association of Home Builders, has expressed concern about a provision of the bill that could, in some cases, hold general contractors responsible for a subcontractor's use of illegal immigrant labor.
The bill, one of President Bush's top domestic priorities, makes a commitment to border security and tougher enforcement, including a crackdown on companies that employ illegal immigrants. But in more than a dozen places, the bill says such steps are "subject to the availability of appropriations," meaning money might or might not be available.
By many accounts, the bill failed to attract enough votes because Republicans believed that the enforcement parts of the bill were too weak.
Senator Mel Martinez, Republican of Florida, a member of the small bipartisan group that wrote the bill, said Wednesday that its sponsors hoped to attract more support by passing an emergency supplemental appropriation of $3 billion to $5 billion to pay for the enforcement measures.
"President Bush seems receptive to the idea," Mr. Martinez said. Tony Snow, the White House press secretary, expressed interest in a Republican proposal to take all fees and fines collected under the bill and use the money for enforcement.
Even Democratic architects of the bill, like Senators Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Ken Salazar of Colorado, are portraying the bill as a way to restore the rule of law.
"It's a matter of our national security," Mr. Kennedy said Wednesday. "We have broken borders and a broken immigration system."
Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, said the extra money could "persuade the American people and reluctant senators" to support the bill.
The 1986 immigration law looms over the current debate. Lawmakers of both parties say that law failed because Congress granted amnesty to three million illegal immigrants, but no president has vigorously enforced its prohibition on hiring illegal immigrants.
The 1986 law "resulted in a tidal wave of illegal immigration," said Senator Jim Webb, Democrat of Virginia.
More than 300 amendments to the current bill have been proposed. Leading supporters of the bill are trying to winnow those down, with the thought that the Senate might vote on a dozen proposed by Republicans and a dozen from Democrats.
Senate Republican leaders are encouraging Republican senators to agree on a finite list of amendments, so the Senate can vote on final passage of the bill.
Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona, the chief Republican architect of the measure, said he and Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, had drafted an amendment that would "significantly tighten up enforcement."
Mr. Kyl said the proposal would alter a provision of the bill that grants "probationary benefits," including work permits, to illegal immigrants within one day after they file applications for legal status.
Conservative critics of the bill have denounced that provision, saying law enforcement agencies could never complete background checks in one day.
Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican of Texas, is likely to get a vote on her proposal to require illegal immigrants to return to their home countries before they could obtain legal status in the United States.
That proposal is anathema to many Democrats and Hispanic groups, who say it would be unworkable. The bill already has a "touchback requirement," but it would apply only to illegal immigrants who are heads of household and seek permanent-residence visas, or green cards. Such visas would become available eight years after the bill became law, at the earliest.
By contrast, under Mrs. Hutchison's proposal, adult illegal immigrants would generally have to leave the United States within two years if they wanted to apply for legal status, in the form of "Z visas."
"My amendment would take the amnesty out of this bill," Mrs. Hutchison said. "It would say, if you are going to work in our country today or tomorrow or two years from now or 25 years from now, you will apply from outside the country to come in legally so we have control of our system."
If Congress provides additional money, some of it would be used to create an electronic system that employers would have to use to verify that employees were eligible to work in this country.
About 17,000 employers have registered to use the current voluntary verification system, but under the Senate bill, nearly six million employers could be required to do so. Under the current program, the government usually confirms within seconds that an employee is authorized to work.
But in some cases, the government does not have up-to-date information on a worker's name or citizenship. The Government Accountability Office, an investigative arm of Congress, said it could take days or even weeks to resolve such discrepancies.