WASHINGTON – The Senate committee delegated to come up with immigration reform legislation proceeded at a glacial pace Wednesday, with senators still far apart on such issues as a guest worker program and a policy toward the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally.
"We are quite a ways from having a bill," said Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., as the panel waded through a host of amendments on how to improve border enforcement.
Even with farmers and businesses depending on illegal immigrants to fill low-wage jobs and President Bush in support of a temporary worker program, advocates of such a program have been unable to overcome the opposition of those who are deadset against any proposal that in an election year could be labeled "amnesty."
The Senate Judiciary Committee had given itself a Thursday deadline to produce a bill that would tighten U.S. borders, impose new sanctions on illegal immigrants and their employers, and give legal status to some workers now here illegally.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., has promised a vote on some kind of temporary "guest worker" program after Congress returns March 27 from a weeklong recess, but not necessarily one that includes illegal immigrants, as advocated by Bush.
Democrats on the Judiciary Committee wrote Frist to ask him to reconsider, saying "arbitrary deadlines and half-finished proposals serve neither the Senate nor the country well."
Republicans with reservations about a guest worker program also urged the Senate to go slow on what could be the most important bill that Congress deals with this year. "Nobody in the country trusts us on this issue right now because we have not demonstrated the integrity to control our borders," said Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla.
Bush has proposed a temporary worker program, allowing participants to register for legal status for a specific period of time and then be required to return home. It would not provide amnesty, which the administration says it would reject in any proposal, and also would not be an automatic path to citizenship.
"So far there's a desire to do guest worker, but the real desire is to make sure the borders are secure first," Specter said Tuesday.
Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., whose state shares a 180-mile border with Mexico, said the chances of getting a comprehensive bill through the Senate are slim. Lawmakers, he said, "have gone absolutely wild" confusing border violence with 9 million to 12 million illegal immigrants in the country.
"Without sufficient thinking, we're applying to them the anger and opposition that comes to the border activities," Domenici said. "These people, some of them have lived here 30 years, 20 years, 10 years. They are not gangsters and robbers."
Judiciary Committee member Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said a temporary worker program may be an issue for another time.
"We should do a good enforcement bill and leave the administration to execute it, then in the meantime, talk seriously about what we want to do about the future," Sessions said.
However, there still is a lot of sentiment among other committee members to allow some illegal immigrants to remain in the United States, if only temporarily.
A bill drafted by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., gives illegal immigrants up to five years to leave the country. But they would have to leave and apply from their home country to return, either as temporary workers or for permanent residency.
Specter would allow illegal immigrants with jobs to get worker permits and get in line for legal residency without having to leave the country. Critics say actually acquiring legal residency under that approach could take decades.
Two other committee members — Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass. — are pushing a business-backed proposal that would allow illegal immigrants to work for six years and then apply for permanent residency without having to leave the U.S.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who supports the McCain-Kennedy approach, argued that lawmakers can't ignore the 11 million undocumented workers in the country.
"Amnesty to me is not what we are talking about," Graham said. "If I had to pay a $2,000 fine and wait 11 years before I could apply for citizenship I wouldn't think I'd been given amnesty."
Americans are just as divided on immigration.
A Time poll in January found that 73 percent of Americans favor a guest worker program for illegal immigrants, but 46 percent said they should have to return first to their native country and apply for it. About 50 percent favored deporting all illegal immigrants.
The House has already passed a tough immigration enforcement bill without any kind of guest worker program, defying threats from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and its allies.