The Immigration Debate
Immigration is a hot and heavy topic on Capitol Hill and in the media. The Washington Post even has a special section dedicated to “The Immigration Debate.” What is so ironic about this section heading, though, is that the one thing that has been lacking is an actual debate. The House passed their bill in December with very little discussion, and the Senate leadership is enforcing a rigorous timetable that stifles debate of the real immigration issues facing America—the estimated 11.5-12 million illegal immigrants, the backlogged temporary visa and green card systems for highly skilled workers, and the important role immigrants play in shaping the United States.
First, let’s backtrack a little. On December 16, 2005, the House passed the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005 (HR 4437) with a vote of 239 to 182. What’s interesting to note about the vote is that this vote has shaped the debate outside of party lines—36 Democrats and 203 Republicans voted for the bill, while 17 Republicans, 164 Democrats, and 1 independent voted against it. HR 4427 contains strict enforcement proposals that would increase fines and create criminal penalties for employers who hire undocumented workers, as well as the undocumented workers and their families themselves.
Even though the House passed their bill in December, the problems and the protests really began in response to Senate action. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist(R-TN) set tight deadlines for the Senate Committee on the Judiciary to finish crafting a bill and for the Senate to vote on the legislation, making it impossible for the Senate to hold a debate around immigration reform. Before the Committee had a chance to do much more than make opening statements on their bill, Frist introduced his own immigration enforcement bill (S. 2454), which contains provisions similar to the House-passed bill. This situation forced the Committee to expedite their process in order to make sure that they have a bill to replace S. 2454.
Thank goodness that Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA) is an effective Judiciary Committee chairman. While drafting his bill, Specter worked closely with members of the committee and with other Senators, including Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Edward Kennedy (D-MA), who developed a plausible guest worker program. The final result was Judiciary Committee bill that includes provisions that not only help the undocumented workers by would allowing them to apply for a six-year temporary worker program after paying a $1,000 fine, which then could put them on the path to permanent residency status or U.S. citizenship, and creating a three-year temporary work visa for guest workers, but also fix the visa problems facing many students and skilled workers who are recruited by American companies. On March 27, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved this bill with a strong bipartisan vote of 12-6—the 6 dissenting votes were all Republican members. Specter offered the committee bill as a substitute amendment to S. 2454, and the Senate is expected to approve the amendment next week.
The fate of the bill is still unknown, especially because the Speaker of the House, Denny Hastert (R-IL), seems to be wavering in his reluctance to consider a guest worker program. The Republican Party remains split on the idea, with Conservative Republicans unwilling to consider a guest worker provision because they equated the idea to giving amnesty. However, it is important to note that Democrats are split on the issue as well. Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH) categorized the situation accurately by saying "The debate is misfocused in some ways when the word 'amnesty' becomes the hot button, nomenclature versus the more substantive question."
So, what is the substance of this debate? The focus should be on the reality that
Ultimately, isn’t it better to make sure that the 11.5-12 million illegal immigrants are accounted for and incorporated into a legitimate American society where they can be encouraged and trained to become part of a productive workforce? Enforcement-only measures like HR 4437 & S 2454 are ineffective bills that will exacerbate the illegal immigration problem. These bills will push illegals deeper into the underground economy, exposing them to the worst types of people who are more than happy to take advantage of their situation. Enforcement-only bills will only encourage the ‘coyotes,’ people who transport illegal immigrants over the border, to become more creative in their techniques, which means an increase in the abuse and death rates of those crossing the borders. In addition, enforcement-only bills do nothing to encourage those who are educated in American colleges and universities to stay and work for American companies after they graduate. We are all immigrants or the ancestors of immigrants, so erecting walls to keep people out or creating legislation to make immigration more difficult stands against the core of American values. Enforcement only bills do not support and protect the people who make this country truly a successful and unique place—Americans.
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