WASHINGTON – U.S. lawmakers are bracing for political backlash from liberal and conservative critics of a broad immigration reform measure that will be on hold as they head home for a weeklong break.
Supporters and opponents said they would use the time off to influence senators who will face major immigration votes when they return to complete the bipartisan measure. The bill would legalize millions of unlawful immigrants, tighten border security and mandate that employers verify they are hiring legal workers.
"As we head into the (holiday) weekend, members of the Immigration Reform Caucus will go back to their districts and remind their constituents about the long-lasting damage passing an amnesty bill would have on our efforts to address illegal immigration," said Brian Bilbray, a Republican and a vocal opponent of the measure.
A coalition of organizations actively pressing for passage of the bill — including labor, Hispanic advocacy and religious groups — also was planning a strong push to encourage lawmakers who support it not to back down.
"They're going to be targeted by a small but loud anti-reform minority," said Clarissa Martinez of the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. "They must not buckle under the pressure."
Lawmakers have already begun hearing vocal opposition to the measure.
"I have learned some new words from some of my constituents," said Sen. Jon Kyl, an influential conservative who is under intense criticism in his border state of Arizona for crafting a bipartisan deal to create a guest worker program and a path to citizenship while tightening border security.
The Senate began considering the bill this week and will return to it in June.
The measure includes conservative-backed initiatives such as the worker verification program to prevent illegal immigrants from getting jobs, and a new point system to prioritize skills and education over family in deciding who can immigrate in the future.
Liberals decry the point scheme as unfair to families and are vehemently opposed to a guest worker program that would allow laborers to come to the U.S. for temporary stints without a guarantee they would be able to stay and eventually gain citizenship.
But it also includes a long-sought liberal priority: granting legal status to the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. Conservatives view that as an unacceptable amnesty program.
President George W. Bush, who has made enactment of an immigration measure a top domestic priority, said he was not surprised at the tenor of the debate, and he urged lawmakers to look beyond it and deliver him a bill anyway.
"We've been through immigration debates in this country, and they can bring out the worst sometimes in people," Bush said. "But the question is, will members of Congress rise above politics?"
Backers of the deal said they were confident about facing their constituents over the break.
"I look forward to going back home and standing up for what I believe to be the right answer, listening to criticism. But time is on our side because our product is better than those who want to do nothing," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Some lawmakers were uneasy, however, about trying to explain the complex bill to a skeptical public.
Architects of the bill planned to spend next week in intense negotiations on proposed changes that could upset their delicate bipartisan deal and doom its chances for passage.
These include Republican-backed limits to the legalization program for unlawful immigrants and modifications sought by Democrats to give foreign family members of permanent residents and U.S. citizens more opportunities to join their relatives in the U.S.