Senate Debates Immigration Issue, Bills

Senate Democrats are taking preliminary steps toward an immigration bill this week, although the obstacles remain daunting. The biggest roadblock is that there is no agreement yet on just what bill the Senate should take up.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

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And I'm Michele Norris.

Congress is once again trying to overhaul the nation's immigration laws. The Senate passed the comprehensive reform bill last year but the House went its own way. It approve a measure to strength the nation's borders but it not deal with about 12 million immigrants now living in the United States illegally. As NPR's Brian Naylor reports, the Senate hopes to take up a bill next week. But first has to agree on what bill to bring to the floor.

BRIAN NAYLOR: A bipartisan group of Senators has been working behind closed doors over the past several weeks in an effort to draft an immigration measure. And while they haven't a final product as yet, they do have what Republican Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania called today, a grand agreement or outline of the bill.

It includes plans to build new fences around metropolitan areas on the U.S.-Mexico border. Funding for more Border Patrol agents and tougher penalties for employers who knowingly hire illegals. What it does not have - according to Specter - is amnesty for the millions of people now in the U.S. illegally. He says, what the bill has instead is a path to citizenship.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): We are going to require that they pay their back taxes, that they have community roots, have a substantial period of employment, that they learn English.

NAYLOR: That approach has long been advocated by President Bush and the administration officials have been participants in the backroom drafting of the measure. But a bipartisan group of House members today criticized what seems to be shaping up in the Senate. Republican Lamar Smith of Texas.

Representative LAMAR SMITH (Republican, Texas): We are here today to send a signal and actually many of us has signed a letter to the Senate leadership saying that if they do put forward their amnesty plan, and we will call it for what it is and that is amnesty.

NAYLOR: Under Republican control, the House refuses to take up the comprehensive measure reprove by the Senate last year - instead focusing on strengthening border security. Republican Senator Mel Martinez of Florida says deporting 12 million people isn't going to happen. And opponents of a comprehensive approached should come up with an alternative.

Senator MEL MARTINEZ (Republican, Florida): What solution do they have to the problem? You know, what did they suggest? How do we handle it? And so that's what I would begin to ask people is we've got some answers. We had a pretty good skeleton of a bill and we still do.

NAYLOR: That skeleton of a bill though still needs flushing out and time is running short. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has called for an immigration measure to be ready next week, otherwise, he says, it won't get pass this year.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

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