Impatience Grows for Immigration Reforms

Editor's note: This is the first article in a two-part series on the debate over illegal immigration.

With two governors in recent weeks declaring a state of emergency because of the upsurge in illegal immigrants in their midst, advocates for tough immigration reform say lawmakers in Washington must pass sweeping legislation this year.

"I want to see their elbows moving, I want to see the sweat on their foreheads to get the work done — no more talk, let's do," said Scott Lingamfelter, a Republican delegate to the Virginia General Assembly who has witnessed a major rise in the number of illegal immigrants reaching northern Virginia, including Prince William County, which he represents.

On Aug. 16, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano (search), a Democrat, declared a state of emergency on that state's border with Mexico, releasing $1.5 million in emergency funding for law enforcement at the border and other related costs.

A week earlier, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (search), also a Democrat, declared a state of emergency on his border, calling the illegal immigration problem there "a violent situation." Both said the federal government has failed to pass and enforce effective border control measures.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff wrote Napolitano last week to say he has already ordered an audit of the federal government's surveillance equipment, personnel and other assets available to combat the hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants crossing over the U.S.-Mexican border each year.

Chertoff said detention and deportation is a growing priority for the government, which has increased the number of border patrols from 4,000 to 11,000 in the last decade. Chertoff also acknowledged that Americans have lost confidence in the government's ability to guard the borders.

"We have decided to stand back and take a look at how we address the problem and solve it once and for all. The American public is rightly distressed about a situation in which they feel we do not have the proper control over our borders," Chertoff told reporters last Tuesday.

Bills on the Table

Meanwhile, President Bush told reporters this month that he is confident immigration reform will be handled this fall, presumably after the Senate confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee John Roberts.

Currently, three bills are on the table in Congress, reflecting different approaches to immigration reform. Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., said he plans to introduce another bill when Congress returns next month. Some lawmakers have suggested they can support only one of the three options while others suggest a fusion of the three might be possible.

"Everybody seems to be in the same ballpark and talking about the same issues," said Angelo Amador, director of immigration policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

But the sticking points in the three bills are hardly small ones, particularly on the issue of guest worker status for illegal aliens already working in this country.

The Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act, authored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and by Reps. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., Jeff Flake and Jim Kolbe, both Arizona Republicans, would allow 400,000 illegal immigrants in the United States to stay on temporary work visas provided they pay an initial fine of $1,000, go through an extensive background check and can demonstrate they were working in the country before the legislation was passed.

The workers then can apply for permanent residency after six years if they pay an additional $1,000, demonstrate civic and English competency, have paid all back taxes and clear criminal background checks. These provisions are part of a larger measure that aims to bolster the nation's border security strategy and enforce other laws against illegal aliens.

Flake said this approach deals constructively with the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country now, about 6 million of whom are populating the U.S. workforce.

"Look at your options, and ask what is the most reasonable approach to registering people here now and bringing them out of the shadows and to force them to pay back taxes," he said. "The question is: How do you deal with both the people here now and provide for future flows of illegal workers?"

Critics say the plan is nothing more than an amnesty for people who broke the law to get here in the first place.

"I think a lot of people in the immigration reform movement think that just goes too far," said Phil Kent of Americans for Immigration Control, which opposes "amnesty" programs and has warned that a big chunk of the Republican conservative base is firmly against them.

"McCain-Kennedy reflects the view, if you will, of those who might be described as the immigration advocacy groups, the groups that want the highest immigration possible," said Steve Camerota, head of the Center for Immigration Studies, which also opposes the guest worker proposal and defends tougher law enforcement as the only way to go.

A bill sponsored by Sens. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, appears more palatable to these critics, though it too does contain a form of guest worker plan.

The Comprehensive Enforcement and Immigration Act is heavy on direct law enforcement, with stiffer penalties, swifter deportations and more effective screening methods.

According to the bill, illegal workers can apply for temporary worker status but they would have to go back to their home country first. They would have five years to leave here, being fined each year after the first and would lose all opportunities to come back under this program if they don't leave voluntarily and are deported.

"Beyond the notion of returning the rule of law to the border, the single most important aspect of this bill is that it does not reward those who have broken the law and does not constitute amnesty," Kyl said.

John Gay, spokesman for the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, said his group of trade and business associations is concerned that thousands of jobs will be vacated en masse if this bill were passed.

"The question is do you want to be crippling part of the U.S. economy by sending all of these people home?" he said.

Other critics of the Kyl-Cornyn bill say it is unrealistic to believe illegal workers will come forward to be sent back home.

"That creates a problem because the question is why would people leave if you have such leniency, and how do you track exactly how long they've been here?" said Will Adams, spokesman for Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo.

Tancredo's bill would allow illegal immigrants to apply for guest worker status from their home country, but only after the United States had completed a checklist of law enforcement reforms, like stricter penalties for illegal aliens. Such measures would include making it more difficult for illegal aliens to work and the children of illegals would lose all non-emergency social benefits like welfare and in-state college tuition.

"Through that theory, there is every incentive to go back," said Adams. "The 10,000-foot view is it would be very difficult to be illegal and be here."

Room for Compromise?

Bush has expressed interest in a guest worker plan, but has not endorsed specific legislation, and in a nod to conservatives in his party angry about border insecurity, has been adamant that he does not support blanket amnesty for illegal workers.

But many conservatives argue the president's proposals are lax, encourage illegals to risk death by crossing from the southern border and overlook the possibility of terrorists creeping through.

White House aides said this week that the administration hopes to have a detailed proposal to Congress in late September or early October. The proposal could include specific legislative language to be dropped into a bill. But observers say they are not confident any legislation will be passed.

"There's a political stalemate," said Camerota, who added that guest worker status is the ultimate obstacle for future negotiations. "It's hard to see a way around these problems. I could be wrong but it's hard to see how we would get to some kind of compromise."

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which supports the McCain-Kennedy plan, is more optimistic about blending the strong points of the different proposals, said Amador.

"I think there are ways of making people happy."