The Senate voted Tuesday to fine employers who hire illegal immigrants up to $20,000 for each unauthorized worker, providing teeth to a broad immigration bill before sending it to a final vote later this week.
Employers would have to check Social Security numbers and the immigration status of all new hires within 18 months.
"This is probably the single most important thing we can do in terms of reducing the inflow of undocumented workers, making sure we can enforce in a systematic way rules governing who gets hired," said Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.
The amendment passed 58-40. Opponents said the verification system would take years to implement and complained that workers deemed illegal could still hold onto jobs until their appeals are exhausted.
Fines between $200 and $600
Employers who don't use the new computerized system could be fined $200 to $600. The system would include information from the Social Security Administration, the Internal Revenue Service and Homeland Security Department.
The $20,000 fines for hiring illegal immigrants once the new screening system is in place would be double the present level.
Repeated violators could be sentenced to prison terms of up to three years.
The House passed a bill in December that would impose fines on employees of undocumented workers ranging from $5,000 to $40,000.
But, unlike the Senate bill, the House measure would require employers to screen all employees — an estimated 140 million people — instead of only new hires.
Test vote Wednesday
Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., scheduled a test vote for Wednesday that sets up the bill's final passage, likely Thursday.
Its most controversial provision would put more than half of the nation's 12 million illegal immigrants on a path toward citizenship without ever having to leave the U.S.
Critics call that amnesty and Republican leaders refused to even allow it to be considered in the bill the House passed in December.
Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., who heads a group of 100 conservatives in the House, said Tuesday he plans to offer a bill this week that would let employers rehire illegal workers now on their payrolls after they have returned home and applied for a new "W" visa to return.
"The solution is to set up a system that will encourage illegal workers to self-deport and come back legally as guest workers," said Pence, who earlier voted for the enforcement-only House bill.
More lenient bill rebuffed
The Senate defeated an effort Tuesday by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., that would have let all illegal immigrants remain, in contrast to the Senate compromise that would require more than one-third of them to leave.
Several lawmakers who voted against the proposal offered by Sen. Dianne Feinstein said they did so reluctantly, but out of necessity to ensure survival of the broader immigration bill. The legislation is expected to win Senate passage Wednesday or Thursday.
“This legislation is on the edge of the ledge as it is,” said Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, one of the Republicans supporting a delicate compromise that has kept the bill alive — letting two-thirds of illegal immigrants stay but making the other third leave.
Feinstein’s amendment, defeated 61 to 37, would have supplanted the compromise that allows illegal immigrants here five years or more to stay, and work six years and seek legal residency after paying back taxes and fines and showing they were learning English.
Those in the country two to five years under the compromise would have to go to a point of entry, exit and file an application to return as a guest worker. Those here less than two years must leave the country, but could apply from their native country to return as a guest worker and wait in line to get a visa.
“I have come to believe that the three-tiered system is unworkable, that it would create a bureaucratic nightmare and it would lead to substantial fraud,” Feinstein said Tuesday.
Feinstein offered the plan just before Frist set the stage for a preliminary vote Wednesday that could quickly bring the bill to a final vote. The bill appears headed for passage.