Senate Pursues Immigration Bill

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Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) is at work on legislation covering a temporary-worker program and giving undocumented immigrants a chance to become legal. And Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN) has alternative plans if Specter's effort fails.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

And I'm Robert Siegel. Around the country, protests against legislation cracking down on illegal immigrants.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTORS CHANTING)

BLOCK: In Phoenix today, an estimated 10,000 protestors marched to the office of Republican Senator Jon Kyl, who sponsored an immigration bill.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTORS CHANTING)

CROWD: Mexico, Mexico, Mexico, Mexico, Mexico...

SIEGEL: In Los Angeles, hundreds of high school students walked out of class and into the street.

RYAN PEREZ: My name is Ryan Perez. I'm 16. We're marching here because it's an injustice what's going on. It's racism. They're saying that all illegal immigrants will automatically be felons. Anybody who helped them will be a felon also.

BLOCK: In Georgia, a mostly silent protest. Hispanic workers stayed home as part of a day of protest, and some Hispanic business owners closed up shop for the day. Yesterday at least 10,000 demonstrators marched through downtown Milwaukee.

RAMIRO CHAVEZ: My name is Ramiro Chavez. I'm from Waukesha, Wisconsin. I was born in this country. My family's from Mexico. My family is at threat of being deported just because they come here and work. My dad came to this country with nothing, and he's been working at a foundry for 20 years. Twenty years. And all he's done is work and pay taxes.

SIEGEL: In this part of the program, we'll hear about the immigration debate in Washington and around the country.

BLOCK: NPR's Jennifer Ludden covers immigration. She joins us to sort through some of the immigration proposals moving through the Senate. Jennifer, thanks for being with us.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Hi, Melissa.

BLOCK: Next week we're going to have competing bills coming up in the Senate. Tell us about them and what some of the differences are.

LUDDEN: No one's quite sure what we're going to see. Basically, the ball is now in the court of the Senate Judiciary Committee. This is headed by Republican Arlen Specter, and he has been trying for weeks very diligently to get a very comprehensive immigration reform package through. He wants not just increased border security, he wants a guest worker program and a plan to legalize the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants already in this country.

If he can't do this on Monday, when the committee meets, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist has said he has his own bill, and it will come to the floor on Tuesday. And Frist's bill is essentially enforcement only, a lot of what Specter has already proposed, but only the enforcement part, although Frist says other measures could be added later.

BLOCK: So no guest worker program in the bill from Senator Frist?

LUDDEN: Not yet.

BLOCK: This debate over whether or not to have a guest worker program seems to be a big sticking point. The president wants it, a lot of people don't. What's the debate over that?

LUDDEN: Well, in the House, for instance, they decided just to shove it aside and not deal with it. There are some in the House who say maybe that's a good idea, but later. We want border security first. And it's been made a real national security issue. In the Senate, you have a lot of people saying, look, no matter what you do on the border, it's not going to work unless we deal with the demand in this country for cheap labor.

And the only way to do that is to set up some legal system. So there's a proposal, all is in flux, but it would have about 400,000 workers who would be matched up on a registry with companies here who had proven in some way that they could not find an American to do this job. They would come in, and then the sticking point becomes how long can they be here and can they eventually become a citizen, or do we make them go back home after a certain amount of time?

BLOCK: That's 400,000 out of what's estimated to be what, 12 million illegal immigrants in this country.

LUDDEN: Right. It would satisfy 400,000 jobs, which clearly, looking at the economy today, is nowhere near the 6 or 7 million low wage undocumented workers that are working here now.

BLOCK: Now, these competing proposals in the Senate come after the House passed legislation back in December, and that seemed to be much more tightly focused on enforcement, national security, no talk about a guest worker program or anything like that.

LUDDEN: A lot of the measures in the House have been repeated in the Senate legislation, but some of them they're trying to water down. The House voted to make it a felony to be here illegally. They criminalized illegal presence. Right now it's a civil violation. There's a lot of opposition to that on the Senate Judiciary Committee. There's also a proposal to build a 700-mile wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. And another measure that's gotten a lot of press is the House proposal to make it a crime to assist illegal immigrants. And in the Senate committee, Richard Durbin, a Democrat of Illinois, working very hard to water that provision down. He wants to exempt churches and find a way to exempt hospitals and other groups.

BLOCK: Now, the idea would be that at some point all these differing versions get reconciled into something that the president could sign into law. He spoke about all this at his news conference on Tuesday and hinted at the rancor that could come. Let's listen to a bit of what he had to say.

GEORGE W: This could be a fractious debate, and I hope it's not. Immigration is a very difficult issue for a lot of members, as you know. It's an emotional issue.

BLOCK: Jennifer, a fractious debate? Understatement, do you think?

LUDDEN: It's a very emotional issue. I think both sides are getting quite heated, we're seeing certainly with these demonstrations. And, you know, part of the reason is it's a very difficult issue. It splits the Republican Party. It splits the Democratic Party. I think people, when they try to figure out where they come out, you know, you don't want 12 million people in the country that don't have papers, but you love your nanny. And I think it's a very legitimately tough struggle for a lot of these congressmen.

BLOCK: NPR's Jennifer Ludden covers immigration. Jennifer, thanks very much.

LUDDEN: Thank you.

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