Senate Panel Approves Immigration-Reform Proposal

Against a backdrop of demonstrations around the country, a Senate committee offers a new proposal to rewrite the nation's immigration laws. The committee approves a bill that strips out proposed penalties against people who are in the United States illegally. The emotionally charged issue is complicated by the politics of this year's Congressional races.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. In Washington a Senate committee has offered a new proposal to rewrite the nation's immigration laws. The issue is fraught with emotion and complicated by the politics of not one, but two election years. This year's congressional races, and the presidential contest of 2008. Some lawmakers say the answer is to secure the borders. Others want undocumented workers to have a chance to stay in the U.S. legally. And it was against a backdrop of demonstrations around the country that the Senate Judiciary Committee announced a breakthrough agreement today.

The Committee approved a bill that strips out proposed penalties against people who are in the U.S. illegally. A report on today's demonstration in the nation's capital is coming up. But first, NPR Congressional correspondent, David Welna. David, what kind of immigration bill did the Judiciary Committee end up approving?

DAVID WELNA reporting:

Well, Michele, it's a bill that deals with getting tougher on enforcing border laws. For example, it doubles the number of border patrol agents, and it provides more beds for jailing those who've entered the country illegally. But the main feature of this legislation is that it deals with the demand for foreign labor, and the reality that there are around 12 million foreigners already in the country who are here illegally.

The committee approved proposals to allow a million and a half undocumented farm workers to stay in the country and get on a path to citizenship. And it also backed an amendment sponsored by Republican John McCain and Democrat Edward Kennedy that allows the millions of undocumented workers already in the country to get on the road to citizenship, provided they pay a thousand dollar fine, that they pass criminal background checks, and that they apply for a green card. And the panel also voted not to make it a crime to be in the country illegally.

NORRIS: Now there is a deep and wide split among Republicans on this issue. I assume that that's not yet been fully resolved.

WELNA: It certainly has not. The, the vote in the committee really split Republicans. Four were for the bill, six opposed it. And the division is really between those who say immigrants are good for business, and documenting them is good for the larger society. And those on the other side who say the bill amounts to an amnesty and a reward for illegally entering the country. And President Bush sides with those who want to expand the number of temporary workers, but it's not clear whether he'd endorse all the provisions in this bill.

NORRIS:

Now in the other chamber, the House passed legislation in December that dealt only with border enforcement. Is it going to be hard to reconcile that with the Senate's bill?

WELNA: Well, yes, we don't know, in fact, what the Senate is finally going to put out, because this bill from the committee is going to go into the Senate chamber, and they're going to be debating it for the next couple of weeks. It may emerge from the Senate in a very different form from what came out of the committee today.

But we do know that the House approved a radically different bill from what came out of the Senate committee. The House, last December, approved a bill that was all about enforcing the border. They had a 700-mile-long barrier being erected along the border. They would have prosecution for those who give assistance to undocumented workers in the country.

The Senate has no such barrier in its bill out of the committee. The committee also voted to allow humanitarian assistance with no criminal prosecution. And it looks like this is going to be a showdown not just between Republicans and Democrats in the Senate, but really between the Senate and, and the House. The House is much more conservative about allowing undocumented workers to get documented in this country.

NORRIS: That's NPR's David Welna at The Capitol. Thanks so much, David.

WELNA: You're welcome, Michele.

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