Monday, March 27, 2006

Immigration Bill Passes Judiciary Committee

On Monday, a bipartisan immigration reform bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee, but its prospects remain unclear. Both the House and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist favor a harder line on immigration reform, and Frist has been threatening to bypass the Judiciary Committee and move his own bill directly to the Senate floor this week. According to the Washington Post report, Frist "declined to say" Monday night what course of action he would take.

The bill approved today would create a temporary worker program "to allow roughly 400,000 foreigners to come to the United States to work each year and would ultimately grant them citizenship as well," according to the New York Times. It also "emphasized border security and would nearly double the number of Border Patrol agents over the next five years, criminalize the construction of tunnels into the United States from another country and speed the deportation of illegal immigrants from countries other than Mexico." Other provisions in the legislation would "eliminate the provisions that ... criminalize immigrants for living here illegally and protect groups and individuals from being prosecuted for offering humanitarian assistance to illegal immigrants."

The most contentious provision is one which would "legalize the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants and to grant them citizenship, provided that they hold jobs, pass criminal background checks, learn English and pay fines and back taxes." Workers would have to "work in the United States for six years before they could apply for permanent residency. They could apply for citizenship five years after that. Immigrants would have to pay a fine, back taxes and learn English."

Supporters of the plan says this is much more than a simple grant of amnesty; as Lindsey Graham put it, "To me that's not amnesty. That is working for the right over an 11-year period to become a citizen. It is not a blanket pardon. The president believes and most of us here believe that the 11 million undocumented people are also workers. We couldn't get by as a nation without those workers and without those people."

In the Judiciary Committee, the bill passed by a vote of 12-6, with all eight Democrats as well as Republicans Graham, Arlen Specter, Mike DeWine and Sam Brownback in support. Senator McCain, a co-sponsor of the legalization plan (along with Senator Kennedy), expressed his support for the bill, and White House spokesman Scott McClellan voiced (at least tepid) Administration backing for the plan as well.

I think this bill strikes a good balance. It's a bipartisan and centrist solution to a problem that simply cannot be solved by building a wall or hiring more border guards. While the specifics will still obviously need to be hammered out, I think the basic groundwork of the bill passed today is a very good beginning, and I do hope that Senator Frist moves this version of the legislation to the floor for the Senate to debate. To thwart the will of a bipartisan majority of the Committee just because some Republicans disagree would be inappropriate and unwise.


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