US Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter speaks during news conference on Capitol Hill
Yuri Gripas  /  Reuters file
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter succeeded Monday in getting an immigration bill OK'd by his panel.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 3/27/2006 3:30:54 PM ET 2006-03-27T20:30:54

The immigration bill the Senate is debating this week may solve an imperative political need for the Republicans: to show loyal GOP voters prior to the Nov. 7 elections that the party’s leaders were able to enact a measure to cope with workers who have entered the United States illegally.

President Bush said he hopes Congress comes up with stronger border controls and a program that “would create a legal way to match willing foreign workers with willing American employers to fill jobs that Americans will not do.”

The Senate action started this week with the Judiciary Committee trying to reach an accord on a bill offered by Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa.

In general terms the Specter bill would punish those who help illegal immigrants enter the United States.

But, with two Republicans, Sen. Mike DeWine of Ohio and Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, joining the committee's eight Democrats, the panel approved an amendment by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., to give immunity to churches, charitable groups, and individuals who provide housing, counseling, and other non-emergency services to illegal immigrants who are victims of violent crime and spousal abuse.

If Specter’s committee can’t finish its work by close of business Monday, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist will offer his own enforcement-only bill for floor debate.

Frist on Monday warned Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid to not follow through on his threat to filibuster any legislation that is only a border control bill and not a guest worker bill.

"I don't think anybody is going to want to be stopping border security," Frist told reporters Monday.

Even if the Senate can agree with the House of Representatives on legislation and send it to Bush for his signature, the bill is likely to grapple with only some of the problems posed by the rapid increase in the number of illegal immigrants in states, such as North Carolina, that didn’t use to encounter them as often.

"If you look at states like North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia, you see growth of 300 percent or over 200 percent from 1990 to 2005 in the number of immigrants,” said University of Michigan demographer William Frey.

He calls them "new destination states," as opposed to traditional destinations such as California.

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New destinations for illegal immigrants
“In the new destination states, it’s a small share of the population, but it’s growing fast. Immigrants coming in to these states tend to be lower income, more likely to be in low-skill, blue-collar jobs, and tend to be more likely to be undocumented (illegal) than the ones in the traditional magnet states,” Frey said. “It’s no wonder there’s a public reaction to the new immigrants coming in these new destination states.”

Rep. Mike McIntyre of North Carolina, a centrist-conservative Democrat, said that in his district, “People are very concerned that illegal immigrants are just consuming our education and health tax dollars and especially in the more rural areas, in the low-wealth counties like in eastern North Carolina where you don’t have a big tax base to begin with.” 

McIntyre was one of 36 Democrats in the House who voted for last December’s Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act, which passed on a vote of 239 to 182.

The House bill would:

  • Require employers to begin determining if new hires are illegal immigrants by checking against an employment eligibility database maintained by the Department of Homeland Security.
  • Increase penalties on employers for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants.
  • Require detention for all non-citizens caught attempting to cross the U.S. border.

Like the House-passed bill, Specter’s would require firms to check new hires against an employment eligibility database and would punish employers who hired illegal immigrants.

Specter's guest worker plan
But Specter also offers a new temporary worker visa so that a non-citizen could work in the United States for up to six years. The non-citizen could bring his spouse and children.

These foreign temporary workers would, in theory, be eligible for legal permanent residence and citizenship, but they’d have to join a long waiting list.

The Specter bill also allows illegal immigrants who were working in the United States before Jan. 4, 2004 to remain, as long as they prove they have a job and pay Federal income taxes owed on their work.

The final product is unlikely to fully satisfy those such as Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., and California independent Jim Gilchrist, founder of the Minuteman Project, which runs volunteer patrols of the Mexican border. Gilchrist ran on an anti-illegal immigrant platform in a special House election last December in southern California.

In recent ballot box tests of illegal immigration as a campaign issue, the anti-illegal immigration candidates have fallen short.

Gilchrist got only 25 percent of the vote in a multi-candidate field. And in Virginia last November, Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore lost to a more immigrant-friendly candidate, Democrat Tim Kaine.

Immigration was far from being the only issue in the campaign, but Kilgore had denounced a decision by a Virginia town to open a taxpayer-supported hiring center for day laborers, many of whom are likely illegal immigrants.

The alliances that have taken shape on the illegal immigration issue defy the usual Left versus Right stereotypes.

Favoring a bill that would provide a path to legal status for those illegal immigrants already living in the United States are traditional Democratic Party allies and Bush foes such as the AFL-CIO and the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights.

These Bush administration foes are allied with traditional Republican-leaning business interests. Among those calling for a guest worker provision are the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Restaurant Association, and the National Association of Home Builders.

Deeper issues go unaddressed
But neither Democratic nor Republican leaders seem eager to debate some of the deeper issues.

For Republicans, two big unsolved questions are: can penalties on employers who hire illegal workers be effective? After all, the 1986 immigration law was supposed to punish such employers but document fraud and lack of enforcement by the federal government made that part of the law a dead letter.

And if employer penalties were truly effective, wouldn’t that alienate the Republicans’ business constituency?

For Democrats, as well as Republicans, a great unmentionable is illegal immigration as contributing factor to wage depression.

Last September former Democratic vice presidential candidate and potential 2008 presidential hopeful John Edwards gave a lengthy speech on poverty in the United States, but omitted any mention of illegal immigration.

According to Christopher Jencks, professor of social policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, “Hiring unskilled immigrants does not make unskilled Americans disappear; it just depresses their wages.”

“Immigration has a much bigger impact on the bottom end of labor market,” said Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, a group that favors reducing immigration to the United States.

“People say, ‘All that really matters is that we have a national unemployment rate of five percent,’ but unfortunately in the occupations where immigrants tend to be most concentrated, the unemployment is substantially higher than that," Camarota said. "That is one of the concerns about efforts to have a guest worker program. This is at the heart of the debate.”

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