WASHINGTON – The House is to vote next week on legislation that strengthens border security and requires workplace enforcement of immigration law but does not offer a guest worker program, a goal of President Bush and many in Congress.
House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., who crafted the bill, said he supports a guest worker program, which would provide temporary visas for unskilled labor, including to those currently in the country illegally. But he said that without a clear consensus on what that program would entail, "I believe it is wise to move cautiously."
The committee is expected to vote on the measure, which also imposes tougher penalties for both smugglers and illegal immigrants, on Thursday. The full House will take up the bill next week, committee aides said.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has pledged to consider immigration reform in February. Frist, R-Tenn., said his plan is to introduce a border security bill and use that as a base to debate guest worker ideas.
Bush traveled to the Mexican border last week to promote the need for both tighter borders and a guest worker program. Under his proposal, undocumented workers would be able to get work visas for up to six years but then would have to leave the country to apply for a new visa.
Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., a leading proponent of taking up a comprehensive bill, questioned the strategy of leaving the guest worker issue for another day.
"Enforcement alone will not work," he said, noting that border crossings continue to rise despite a tenfold increase in resources along the border. "It also does not address the millions of people already here and living in the shadows."
The Sensenbrenner bill incorporates border security legislation sponsored by Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King, R-N.Y., with new penalties for violators and new requirements on employers who hire non-citizens.
Among the penalties, it makes illegal presence in the United States, currently a civil offense, a criminal felony. Some immigration experts estimate that 40 percent of illegal immigrants enter the country legally and then overstay their visas.
It places mandatory minimum sentences on smuggling convictions and attempts to re-enter the country after removal, and subjects all non-citizens, legal or illegal, to deportation if convicted of three or more drunken driving offenses.
The legislation also provides reimbursement for local sheriffs in 29 border counties who transfer illegal immigrants to federal custody and would make non-citizen gang members deportable.
The enforcement provision expands and makes mandatory a volunteer program set up in 1996 under which companies, by computer or phone, verify that a worker is in the country legally.
Employers would check Social Security numbers and alien identification numbers against Social Security Administration and Homeland Security Department records. Companies that knowingly hire illegal immigrants or fail to verify could face penalties of not less than $5,000 a person. Currently the maximum fine is $2,000.
The border security part of the bill approves the hiring of 1,000 new border patrol agents, up from the current 11,000, and approves new state-of-the-art surveillance technology, including sensors, satellite and unmanned aerial vehicles to ensure 100 percent coverage of borders.
Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., a leading proponent of tougher measures to stop illegal immigration, said the Sensenbrenner bill was only a first step, and urged the GOP leadership to allow a robust debate during which such ideas as building a fence or deployment military technology will be on the table.