WASHINGTON – Congress should take tough steps to stop the flow of illegal immigrants, House Republicans agreed Tuesday, while putting off the question of whether undocumented workers already in the country should be given a path toward legal status.
A Republicans-only forum on border security confirmed the House's rejection of the Senate approach of combining enhanced border security with creation of a guest worker program and a means for illegal immigrants to move toward eventual legal status.
"The state of our borders is a security crisis," said House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., at the meeting of GOP leaders and committee chairmen. The American people want, he said, "immediate, targeted legislation specifically designed to secure the border, protect our homeland and vigorously enforce our immigration laws."
The purpose of the forum was to share results from some 22 hearings Republicans held in 13 states during the August recess to press the importance of the border security issue. House Republicans initiated the hearings as it became apparent that compromise with the Senate on a more comprehensive bill would be unlikely to clear Congress this year.
Rep. Adam Putnam, R-Fla., chairman of the Republican Policy Committee, is charged with putting together legislation in the coming weeks. It was unclear whether the final product would be a stand-alone bill — which might face strong opposition in the Senate — or be attached to a spending bill that Congress must pass this year.
But House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said at a news conference Tuesday that "we will send President Bush a series of border initiatives this year."
He said that areas that must be addressed include more border patrol agents, additional fencing along the border, stricter enforcement of immigration laws and enhanced state and local law enforcement authority.
House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier, R-Calif., pushed for efforts to establish a smart, counterfeit-proof Social Security card.
Rep. Harold Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on homeland security, spoke of a $5.5 billion Homeland Security Department contract to be awarded this fall that would "essentially prevent penetration" within the next five years through a combination of electronic surveillance, unmanned aerial surveillance and patrols.
Bush, while not specifically endorsing the Senate bill, has long advocated changes in immigration policy to create a guest worker program and set up a procedure by which the 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants in the country can work toward legal status and eventual citizenship.
Democrats dismissed the August hearings as episodes of preaching to the converted and said that, as long as there is a demand for foreign labor, the security-only approach won't work.
"They haven't even told us what they are planning to propose, which shows that this is not a serious legislative thing they are proposing," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., in a telephone news conference. "This is a political game."
Putnam, while responsible for putting together a border security package, represents an agricultural district in central Florida where there's interest in creating a guest worker program for farm workers.
He is scheduled to attend a rally Wednesday outside the Capitol being staged by farmers, restaurant owners and the Chamber of Commerce in favor of comprehensive immigration legislation.
"While there must be a comprehensive approach to immigration, securing our borders is the first, and most pressing, problem demanding our attention and action," he told the forum.