WASHINGTON – From building a fence to keep them out to passing a law to help them stay, members of Congress have lots of ideas on how to respond to President Bush's challenge to take on the problem of illegal immigrants. There's a will to act but so far not much consensus.
The first stab at the problem could come in the next two weeks, when the House may vote on legislation to strengthen border security. That's the easiest of the three legs of immigration reform. The others, enforcing workplace hiring rules and setting up a guest-worker program that might incorporate illegal immigrants, are far more divisive.
In the Senate, Majority Leader Bill Frist plans to bring up a border security bill in February, and use that as a starting point for broader reform. "We must boldly address the challenges of border security first," Frist, R-Tenn., said this week as Bush toured the Texas-Mexico border to stress the need for both tougher border controls and a guest-worker program.
The House bill will likely come from Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., with the focus on tighter borders and some elements of workplace enforcement. His spokesman, Jeff Lungren, said it could contain a proposal by Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., to expand a program for verifying employee records with the Homeland Security Department and the Social Security Administration, and another by Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., to make Social Security cards more tamperproof.
But there's lots of other proposals to choose from. The Homeland Security Committee this month approved a bill by its chairman, Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., that would add border patrol agents, make use of new monitoring technology including unmanned aerial vehicles and end the "catch and release" practice for non-Mexican illegals.
Dozens of other border security bills have been introduced, many by conservatives and border state lawmakers fed up with the government's failure to stop the flow of illegal immigrants.
Rep. Virgil Goode, R-Va., is seeking $2 billion to build a fence along the border with Mexico. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., who has made a crackdown on illegal immigrants the theme of a longshot presidential bid, is among several who would change existing law to allow use of the military for border enforcement. Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., has an extensive bill that would let state and local police enforce immigration law.
"I expect it to grow," Lungren said of Sensenbrenner's bill.
Congress already has taken several steps this year to tighten border security, including making it easier to deny admission to people linked to terrorism and setting national standards for obtaining drivers licenses. A Homeland Security Department spending bill this October provided money to add 1,000 border patrol agents to the current 11,000.
In the Senate, Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., has put together a more comprehensive bill that picks and chooses from various sources. It models border and interior enforcement provisions on a bill backed by Republican Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and Jon Kyl of Arizona, employment verification from a bill by Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and a guest-worker program put forth by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
"I do not necessarily endorse every provision" in the package, Specter wrote in a letter to Senate colleagues, saying it will "serve as a starting point for discussions."
The Cornyn-Kyl and McCain-Kennedy bills are the top contenders on the guest-worker issue. Cornyn-Kyl would require people in the country illegally to return to their home countries to apply for a new temporary worker program. McCain-Kennedy would permit illegal immigrants to obtain work visas for up to six years, after which those not applying for permanent residency would have to leave the country.
Angela Kelley, deputy director of the pro-immigration National Immigration Forum, applauded the Senate for more directly confronting the issues of an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants and the demand for low-skilled workers that draws them to this country. "In order for this to work, you've got to get the people who are the subject of this legislation to participate" in the outcome, she said.
As a base bill on border security, the Senate could turn to a proposal by Sens. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., to hire more inspectors and patrol officers and ask the National Guard and a volunteer force of retired law enforcement officers to help monitor the northern and southern borders.
But as in the House, there are a variety of choices. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, would also give state and local law enforcement a greater role and create a "volunteer border Marshall plan" under which state-licensed peace officers would join border patrols on temporary missions. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, would allow migrant farmworkers to stay legally and earn points toward legal status.