House Aims to Crack Down on Illegal Immigrant Smugglers

House Republicans took a new crack at old immigration issues Thursday with pre-election votes on deporting gang members, imprisoning tunnelers and empowering local police to arrest illegal immigrants.

With no prospects this year for passing broader immigration changes favored by the Senate, House GOP leaders said taking action to seal the border was a matter of urgency.

"We're running out of time in this Congress," said Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis. "The American people say border security first."

But Sensenbrenner's Republican counterpart in the Senate, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, said, "I don't see how we can deal with the immigration issue on a piecemeal basis." There would be no motivation for the House to negotiate on the issue "if we take care of all of their priorities and none of the Senate's," he said.

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The House passed legislation last December that concentrated on border security and enforcement of laws banning employment of undocumented workers. The Senate in May passed a broader bill, generally endorsed by President Bush, that included provisions for a guest worker program and ways for the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants to work toward legal status and eventual citizenship.

There's been no progress in efforts to reconcile the two bills.

The three border security bills the House took up Thursday were in large part already included in the bill passed last December.

House leaders said one plan was to try to attach the bills to Homeland Security spending legislation that Congress must clear before the end of the session, an approach that Specter, also a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, appeared to dismiss.

The Senate, meanwhile, was debating legislation passed by the House last week that would approve construction of a 700-mile fence stretching across one-third of the U.S.-Mexico border.

Democrats said Thursday's votes were an attempt to cover up the failure to pass more comprehensive immigration changes.

"It's political gamesmanship that forecasts an election" less than two months away, said Rep. John Conyers of Michigan, top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.

The three House bills would:

—Impose prison terms of up to 20 years for those who knowingly construct or finance an unauthorized tunnel under a U.S. border. People who permit the construction of such a tunnel could face 10 years in prison. Sensenbrenner said 50 tunnels, used to smuggle narcotics and illegal immigrants, have been discovered along the Mexican border since 1990, and 36 in the last five years.

—Allow the Department of Homeland Security to hold illegal immigrants detained for crimes or as threats to national security beyond the current limit of six months, and set up expedited procedures for deporting these people. The bill also would make it easier to detain and deport illegal immigrants found to be part of criminal street gangs. It passed 328-95.

The National Immigration Forum voiced opposition to the provision, saying it "gives the attorney general the ability to designate any group as a gang and then punish an individual for belonging to that group, regardless of whether the individual committed a crime."

—Reaffirm the authority of state and local law enforcement to arrest, detain and transfer to federal custody illegal immigrants. It would ask the Justice Department to increase the number of attorneys prosecuting immigrant smuggling cases. It also would close loopholes that have led to "catch and release" policies in which illegal immigrants, mainly non-Mexicans, are released because they cannot be immediately deported.