WASHINGTON – After eight hours of seemingly endless debate, the Senate Judiciary Committee wrapped up an immigration reform bill on Monday evening that addresses the concerns of many illegal immigrants and border patrol hawks, but doesn't satisfy the majority leader.
"All Americans wanted fairness and they got it this evening," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who was a key coordinator of the bill.
The bill passed on a 12-6 vote. On several amendments, GOP Sens. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, Sam Brownback of Kansas and Mike DeWine of Ohio, who is seeking re-election this fall, sided with Democrats. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., also voted for the bill though he signaled that some of the provisions could well be changed by the full Senate.
In fact, many of the provisions that passed are in great jeopardy since the legislation was approved without a majority of Republicans' support. Before the panel vote, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said if the committee didn't finish its work before midnight, he would bring his own border security-only bill to the floor. Now that it has passed with fewer than half of the committee's 10 Republicans supporting it, Frist is threatening to ignore the panel's final product and continue with his own legislation.
Senate Democrats have threatened to filibuster Frist's bill because they want a measure that address more comprehensive reforms.
"We have a train wreck waiting to happen," one Senate Republican source told FOX News.
Many Exceptions Made for Illegals
The Senate is scheduled to start debating immigration reform on Tuesday afternoon, and is expected to open debate with Frist's bill.
"The way it will play out is as follows: either late tomorrow or the following day will take my bill, which is a strong border security bill which addresses most immediate problems that we have, to floor. And in all likelihood the first amendment that comes to floor will be this bill that is reported out by the judiciary committee," Frist told FOX News on Monday night.
That bill includes several victories demanded by demonstrators on Capitol Hill who urged the Senate to reject new get-tough measures on illegal aliens. Among them, the committee rejected a House move to change illegal border crossings from a misdemeanor to a felony.
"The House made that violation a felony and I want to be clear I don't agree with that and I don't know anyone on the committee who agrees with that," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.
The committee also moved to protect churches and charities from House language that protesters feared could lead to the arrest of Samaritans who help illegal aliens.
"A priest who counsels an undocumented mother to stay in the United States with her U.S. citizen children rather than abandoning them could be subject to this criminal penalty," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill.
Responding to the Senate committee bill, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and author of the House bill, said the House bill is aimed at alien smugglers, not people trying to give honest assistance to illegals in the United States.
"I am disappointed by the erroneous accusations lodged against the strong House-passed border security bill aimed at preventing illegal immigration that I sponsored," Sensenbrenner said in a statement.
"I would hope everyone would embrace a good-faith effort to combat alien smuggling gangs rather than engage in fear-mongering that clergy and good Samaritans will be thrown in jail. That's absolutely false and beneath the level of dialogue this important issue deserves," he said.
The Senate committee rejected a proposal by Cornyn to require humanitarian groups providing food, medical aid and advice to illegal immigrants to register with the Department of Homeland Security. In December, the House voted to make offers of non-emergency aid a felony.
Kennedy, who crafted much of the legislation with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., prevailed on a proposal to allow an additional 400,000 green cards for future immigrants, regardless of the industry where they find jobs. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., won approval on an 11-5 vote for a five-year program to permit as many as 1.5 million agriculture workers into the country. They will be allowed to seek permanent legal residence.
"It will provide the agriculture industry with a legal work force and offer agriculture workers a path to citizenship," she said.
The committee approved more than doubling the current force of 11,300 Border Patrol agents in an effort to stem the tide of new undocumented workers arriving daily. It voted to add 2,000 agents next year and 2,400 more annually through 2011. The bill also authorizes a "virtual wall" along the U.S.-Mexico border that consists of actual fences as well as unmanned vehicles, cameras and censors.
While the panel was able to wrap its legislative arms around a guest worker program that clears a path to citizenship for the 11 million illegals now believed to be in the country, Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who sponsored his own bill with Cornyn, warned that the bill as it is written will die before it's law.
"If the bottom line is that all of the people who came here illegally have got to be made citizens, then we may as well have the vote right now. You all may have the votes to pass that, but it will never become law. I'll vote against it, that's amnesty, that's not going to work," Kyl said.
Bush Prefers Guest Worker Program
Also weighing into the biggest debate in Washington, D.C., President Bush said Monday the United States "should not have to choose between being a welcoming society and being a lawful society" when dealing with illegal immigration.
The president pushed Congress to pass a guest worker program that would let many illegal immigrants already in the United States stay for six years if they have jobs and have stayed out of criminal trouble.
"To keep the promise of America, we must enforce the laws of America. We must also reform those laws," Bush said during a naturalization ceremony for 30 new Americans who took the long and legal path to citizenship. "Nobody benefits when illegal immigrants live in the shadows of society. America needs comprehensive immigration reform."
Bush noted that immigration is an "emotional topic." Among other things, his plan would tighten the borders and increase penalties on employers who hire illegals while letting the illegals get in line to seek citizenship.
"We need to maintain our perspective as we conduct this debate," Bush said during remarks to DAR-Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. "At its core, immigration is a sign of a confident and successful nation. It says something about our country that people around the world are willing to leave their homes and leave the families and risk everything to come to America. Their talent and hard work and freedom have helped make America a leader in the world."
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, calls for tougher border security have dominated debate over the hot-button topic of controlling immigration.
"No one should play on people's fears or try to pit neighbors against each other," Bush said. "No one should pretend that immigrants are threats to America's identity because immigrants have shaped America's identity.
"No one should claim that immigrants are a burden on our economy because the work and enterprise of immigrants helps sustain our economy," the president said. "We should not give in to pessimism. If we work together I am confident we can meet our duty to fix our immigration system and deliver a bill that protects our people, upholds our laws and makes our people proud."
Cesar Chavez Would Be Proud
Thousands of immigration advocates rallied Monday at the U.S. Capitol, where dozens of members of the clergy wore handcuffs to protest what they say is the House bill's criminalization of their aid programs for poor immigrants.
"This is not about legislation any more," said Jorge Medina, an immigrant from Honduras now living in Charlotte, N.C. "This is about feelings now. We are Americans, too. We are not from Mars and we are not from the moon."
Elsewhere, hundreds of demonstrators, many waving U.S. and Mexican flags, marched through Detroit. In Huntington Park, Calif., several hundred high school students walked out of class as protests against an immigration crackdown continued on California's Cesar Chavez Day, named to honor the Latino founder of United Farm Workers of America.
Cornyn called the protests unhelpful, particularly since many of the slogans at the demonstrations carried an anti-American tinge.
More than 500,000 people rallied in Los Angeles on Saturday, demanding that Congress abandon the House-passed measures that would make being an undocumented immigrant a felony and erect a 700-mile fence along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border Currently, being in the United States illegally is a civil violation. Similar but smaller protests were held in Dallas, Phoenix, Milwaukee and Columbus, Ohio, among other cities
Reform Does Not Mean Amnesty
Aides to Specter, Cornyn, Kyl, Kennedy and McCain, who is not on the Judiciary Committee, spent much of the congressional recess last week trying to find a compromise that would stave off Frist's bill.
Frist's measure would punish employers who hire illegal immigrants and provide more visas. It sidesteps the issue of whether to let illegal immigrants already here stay, though he says he opposes that idea.
"I am a little disappointed in (the committee bill) because I think it is going to be characterized as amnesty in the sense that it adopted provisions late this afternoon that does not require people who have been here illegally to go back to their native countries before (they) apply for green cards before applying for citizenship," Frist said.
In a radio interview with Tony Snow on "FOX News Talks," Frist said he thought it is impractical to have a fence thousands of miles long, along the U.S.-Mexico border. Frist said his bill would include a "virtual wall."
"In some areas it would be a triple-fence wall, but in some you may have unmanned aerial vehicles, infrared censors, physical monitoring," he said.
Employers and immigration advocates prefer the plan offered by Kennedy and McCain that would allow illegal immigrants to become eligible for permanent residency after working for six years. Both McCain and Frist are likely candidates for the Republican presidential nomination next year.
Some are wary of such bills and say they're basically amnesty for people who are in the United States illegally.
"The McCain-Kennedy-Specter bill that came out of the Judiciary Committee today provides nearly universal amnesty for the more than 12 million illegal aliens in the U.S. The bill also adds hundreds of thousands of foreign workers to a background check system that is already on the brink of collapse. The Judiciary Committee even adopted Durbin’s amendment, which reduces penalties so that visa overstays will continue to undermine our immigration system," said Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., one of the chief House hawks on illegal immigration.
Anything but a requirement for illegal immigrants to return home amounts to amnesty, Kyl argued.
"Well over 60 percent of Americans in all the polls I see think it's OK to have temporary workers, but you do not have to make them citizens," said Kyl, who is seeking re-election this fall.
But New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democratic supporter of the McCain-Kennedy bill, said that legislation is a far cry from amnesty, with provisions that include making sure immigrants learn English, pay fines and work jobs Americans don't want.
"I'm totally against amnesty. Amnesty would be saying, 'OK, guys, you can stay, you're citizens,'" he told FOX News. "It' going to be messy but this is a very, very difficult wedge, political issues."
"I believe granting amnesty would be unfair" to people who have "played by the rules" to await citizenship, Bush said Monday. Saying it would encourage future waves of illegal immigration and would further threaten law enforcement, the president added that he "firmly" opposes amnesty.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Monday that it's too early to talk about a final piece of legislation and whether Bush will veto a bill that doesn't include a guest worker program. Saying there's a long way to go on the legislative process, McClellan added that it's important the White House and Congress work together to come up with a comprehensive solution to a broken immigration system.
FOX News' Major Garrett and Liza Porteus and The Associated Press contributed to this report.