WASHINGTON – House Republicans are crafting new bills to crack down on illegal immigrants, nailing the coffin shut for now on broader legislation that would give many illegal immigrants legal status.
If the bills are approved, Republicans can go into midterm elections Nov. 7 saying they took action on illegal immigration. At the same time, they can appease conservatives who oppose giving illegal immigrants a chance at citizenship, which some have called amnesty.
"Our borders are a sieve and we are at war and we certainly need to act like we are at war. We need to close our borders," House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., told reporters Thursday.
House leaders will preside over a meeting next week where Republican committee chairmen will propose border security measures based on what they learned from field hearings they conducted over the past month, Hastert said.
"It won't be the whole 95 tons of what we've tried to work between the House and Senate, but we will try to get some things done," he said.
Some possible ideas include voter identification cards and safer Social Security cards, he said.
The package also will include some immigration spending added to pending defense and homeland security appropriations bills. Congressional leaders want to get those bills to President Bush this month before adjourning to campaign for the November elections.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said Wednesday it would be "next to impossible" to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill by the end of the month.
The House package would also need Senate approval. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, said Congress has already been improving border security.
"I think it would be a huge lost opportunity if we don't try to create a system going forward that allows people to come into our country legally," Hutchison said. She has proposed an immigration bill with Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., that calls for a guest worker program.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., a chief architect of the Senate bill, said the House plan for more legislation "has more to do with solving a political problem for Republicans than solving our immigration problem."
Kennedy joined thousands of people who rallied on the National Mall to push for a comprehensive immigration bill. The crowd chanted "Si Se Puede," which translates to "Yes, it can be done." But some were skeptical it could be done soon.
"If we go back to the civil rights movement, people had to march for years and years to get something," said Jaime Castillo, chairman of the National Capital Immigration Council.
Flor Hernandez, 25, of Alexandria, Va., said she is already looking to the future. She is the daughter of immigrants from El Salvador.
"I'm here to support my next generation and to make sure we are going to vote," she said.
The House passed an enforcement-only immigration bill last December that would build 700 miles of fences on the border, require employers to verify workers are legal and subject to felony prosecution illegal immigrants and the people who help them.
The bill triggered massive street demonstrations last spring by immigrants and their advocates that helped build support for the Senate's broader immigration bill.
In June, the Senate passed a bill supported by Bush that would let a majority of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already in the United States remain in the country and eventually earn U.S. citizenship. It also would create a new guest worker program and toughen border security.
With elections looming, House Republicans balked at negotiating a compromise, instead holding dozens of hearings in July and August to criticize the Senate bill.