WASHINGTON — The Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill Thursday, by a vote of 62-36, holding together a delicate compromise and setting the stage for a showdown with the House over a guest worker program and citizenship for illegal immigrants.
The bill, if signed into law, would tighten border security, stiffen fines against employers hiring illegal immigrants, create a temporary guest worker program and establish procedures by which illegal immigrants who live and work here can earn citizenship.
It is expected to be a difficult task to reconcile the Senate bill with a House measure passed in December that would make it a felony to be in the country without documentation, a law that would affect an estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants. The House bill does not contain provisions for a guest worker program or citizenship opportunities.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R., Tenn.) has said he expects a compromise will be reached in a conference committee. But Minority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) said messages from House leaders on reaching a compromise bill are “not encouraging.” President Bush has thrown his support behind legislation that creates a temporary guest worker program and generally allows illegal immigrants a path to citizenship after they pay penalties and taxes, and learn English.
Debate on the floor Thursday illustrated the difficulties that lie ahead for lawmakers in crafting compromise legislation.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R., Pa.) said the Senate bill is not “amnesty,” as many conservatives have contended.
“There is a rigorous ladder which the undocumented immigrants have to pass through,” Specter said. “They have to pay a fine … they have to undergo a criminal background check, they have to pay back taxes, they have to learn English and they have to work for six years, and it is genuinely earned citizenship, by any measure.”
Sen. Edward Kennedy (D., Mass.) called the comprehensive bill “a realistic attempt to solve the real-world problems that have festered too long in our broken immigration system.” Kennedy said, “It protects our security through stricter enforcement and tamper-proof immigration cards and high-tech border controls. It protects American jobs and wages by bringing immigration out of the shadows and requires employers to pay fair American wages.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.), one of the most outspoken critics of the measure, called the bill “deeply flawed.”
“First, people who are here illegally … will be given over a period of time every single benefit this nation can bestow on its citizens. I think that is amnesty,” said Sessions.
The Senate bill outlines a three-tiered program. Those illegal immigrants who have lived in the country for five years or more would be allowed to stay in the U.S., continue working and apply for citizenship. They would have to pay a fine of at least $3,250, settle back taxes and learn English.
Illegal immigrants who have lived in the U.S. between two and five years would be required to go to a point of entry before they return to the U.S. and begin the process for citizenship. They would have to pay the same fines and fees, pay back taxes and learn English. An illegal immigrant in the country for less than two years would have to leave and would not have any guarantee of return.
The bill also would establish a new electronic verification system and put the onus on employers hiring immigrants. Employers would face maximum fines of $20,000 for each illegal worker and possible jail time.
The bill also calls for hiring 1,000 new Border Patrol agents this year and 14,000 by 2011, obtaining new surveillance equipment and constructing 370 miles of triple-layered fencing and 500 miles of vehicle barriers.