WASHINGTON – House Republicans tried to close ranks Thursday on an immigration bill that some complained was not tough enough and others said was inadequate because it failed to include a guest worker program.
These disputes slowed action on a measure intended to shut down illegal traffic along the border while requiring employers to verify the legal status of their workers.
The House voted 220-206 to approve a parliamentary measure needed to move ahead on the bill, but only after GOP leaders appealed in a private meeting for party unity.
"There's kind of a left-right coalition against it," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz. Some lawmakers cited the absence of a guest worker program while others feared the proposal could lead to something equivalent to amnesty.
Supporters defended their approach of acting to cut off the flow of illegal entrants before turning to the tougher issues of a guest worker program or other means to fill the jobs that now attract millions of undocumented workers.
"Until the borders are protected we cannot have any kind of meaningful immigration reform," said GOP Rep. Peter King of New York, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.
Almost all Democrats, and several border-state Republicans such as Flake and fellow Arizonan Jim Kolbe, pushed for a more comprehensive package that dealt with the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already in the U.S.
The GOP bill "does nothing to solve the real problems of illegal immigration," Kolbe said. "In fact it's worse than nothing."
The White House said in a statement that it strongly supported the House bill, while adding that the administration "remains committed to comprehensive immigration reform, including a temporary worker program that avoids amnesty."
President Bush almost two years ago urged Congress to enact a guest worker program. He repeated that message during a recent visit to the Mexican border.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., says the guest worker issue will be on the table when the Senate takes up immigration overhaul in February. The main controversy is over whether the estimated 6 million illegal workers should have to leave the country before applying for a temporary worker program.
The House bill combines the work of King and the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.
The border security aspects, King said, include requiring the Homeland Security Department to employ the personnel and technology needed to secure the border; ending the "catch-and-release" policy for non-Mexicans; and requiring the Pentagon and Homeland Security to come up with a common plan on the use of military technology to stop illegal crossings.
The bill also outlines increased penalties for smugglers and those re-entering illegally; authorizes police along the border to enforce immigration law; and makes illegal presence in the United States, now a civil offense, a misdemeanor crime.
The bill originally made illegal presence a felon. Sensenbrenner's spokesman, Jeff Lungren, said that was being changed because felonies require jury trials and consume too many resources.
Most significantly, the bill requires all employers in the country, more than 7 million, to check on the legal status of workers.
Randel Johnson of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said Wednesday that the House bill was unacceptable to businesses because of "huge concerns" that the requirement to submit Social Security numbers and other vital statistics to a central database would not work. Companies that do not verify the legal status of workers would be subject to penalties.
"We would be more comfortable if it was just applicable to new hires for several years," he said.
Acting House Majority Leader Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said Republicans would work with their business allies on the verification program. But, he said, "this is an issue that really they don't get to determine."
Critics of the bill also predicted that increased penalties and provisions for expedited removal of illegal entrants would drive those in the country illegally further underground.
Bishop Thomas Wenski of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops questioned whether criminalizing illegal presence could implicate the good Samaritan who gives an illegal immigrant a glass of water.