WASHINGTON – Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist sidesteps President Bush's call for giving illegal immigrants temporary work permits in an election-year immigration bill the Tennessee Republican unveiled Friday.
Frist, who is seeking his party's nomination in 2008 to succeed Bush in the White House, said the Senate will turn to his proposal to tighten borders, punish employers who hire illegal immigrants and provide more visas if the Senate Judiciary Committee doesn't complete a broader bill in the next 10 days.
A clear majority on the 18-member committee has come out in favor of a "guest worker" program that would let employed illegal immigrants remain in the U.S. — at least temporarily — rather than be deported. The committee members agreed Friday to try to come up with a substitute for Frist's bill by March 27.
Bush — walking a tightrope between businesses that oppose deporting undocumented workers they've trained, and social conservatives who want all 11 million illegals in the U.S. deported — has called for letting those with jobs stay for up to six years.
The House passed a tough immigration enforcement bill in December that would make it a felony for illegal immigrants to be in the United States, impose new penalties on employers who hire them and erect fencing along a third of the U.S.-Mexico border. But it had no temporary worker program.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., faulted Frist's bill for not addressing what to do with illegal immigrants already in the U.S. "Countless businesses rely heavily on their labor and it's long past time to provide legal avenues to bring this underground economy out of the shadow," he said.
Frist's bill would:
—Require all employers to verify the identity and immigration status of their employees through an electronic system.
—Assess civil penalties of between $500 and $20,000 against employers for each illegal immigrant they hire and criminal penalties of up to $20,000 per illegal immigrant hired and up to six months in jail for engaging in a pattern of employing illegal workers.
—Add 4,400 Border Patrol agents over six years to the 10,000 Congress provided for in the intelligence reform law passed in 2004, and 1,000 more immigrant smuggling investigators over the next five years.
—More than double the number of employment-based green cards, from 140,000 to 290,000, and make more employment based visas available to unskilled workers. It also would free up other visas by exempting immediate relatives of U.S. citizens from being counted in the annual pool of 480,000 visas, and increase country-by-country ceilings on family sponsored and employment-based immigrants.