WASHINGTON – Legislation to choke off illegal immigration, both at the border and in the workplace, cleared a key House committee Thursday despite strong objections from Democrats who said immigration reform must also deal with the 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country.
The Judiciary Committee approved the measure on a party-line 23-15 vote, setting up a vote in the full House next week before Congress adjourns for the year.
The 169-page bill goes beyond increasing border patrol agents and equipment to enlist military support in border surveillance and reimburse local law enforcement in border areas for assistance in combatting alien smuggling and illegal entry.
It requires the Homeland Security Department to detain until removal all who try to enter the country illegally and sets new mandatory minimum sentences on smugglers and people convicted of re-entry after removal.
Illegal presence in the country, now a civil offense, would become a federal crime, and three drunken driving convictions would become a deportable offense for legal immigrants.
All employers in the country would be required to participate in a verification system under which the government would confirm that a worker or a job applicant has legal status.
The bill, said its sponsor, committee chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., "will help restore the integrity of our nation's borders and re-establish respect for our laws by holding violators accountable."
President Bush, citing national security concerns as well as the social and economic costs, has demanded that Congress address the illegal immigrant issue. He has also proposed a guest worker program that could allow illegal immigrants to stay in the country temporarily to fill jobs unwanted by Americans.
Democrats on the committee faulted the Sensenbrenner bill for not addressing the guest worker issue, saying border security measures are doomed to fail if nothing is done about those already in the country. Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., said the tourist industry as well as the fruit and vegetable industries would be devastated if no guest worker program is available and employers have to verify the legality of workers.
Berman tried to attach provisions of legislation proposed by an Arizona Republican, Rep. Jeff Flake, that includes a guest worker program, but Republicans voted it down.
Flake, who voted "present," said he would continue to push his bill because "we have to have a legal channel for workers to come and go home."
Sensenbrenner said he was not against a guest worker program, but decided to move on enforcement issues first because there was still no consensus on how a guest worker program would take shape.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., has said he would open debate in February on a border security bill that could become the basis for more comprehensive immigration reform. There are several guest worker proposals in the Senate, with the main issue being whether those here illegally would have to leave the country before applying for a temporary worker visa.
The bill is H.R. 4437.