Immigration Takes Center Stage in Washington

The Senate begins debate on overhauling the nation's immigration laws. Senators will consider a measure passed on Monday by the Senate Judiciary Committee that would clear the way for 11 million illegal immigrants to seek U.S. citizenship. It would create a guest worker program, something President Bush supports and the House of Representatives has rejected.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

The latest protests against the crackdown on immigrants came here in southern California, where nearly 40,000 students walked out of schools and onto streets and freeways.

INSKEEP: There were also protests here in Washington, where protestors on Capitol Hill chanted, we are America. And then there were protests in Detroit, where Hispanic protestors waved Mexican flags.

MONTAGNE: The protests came just as the Senate begins debate today on its first overhaul of immigration policy in two decades. One emotional issue is what to do about millions of illegal immigrants already in the U.S. The question is whether to crack down or welcome them as guest workers. Last night, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill that included the guest worker provision.

Here's NPR's David Welna.

DAVID WELNA, reporting:

Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist had given the Judiciary Committee until midnight last night to pass an Immigration and Border Enforcement Bill, or else he'd push ahead on the Senate floor today with his own proposal, which like House legislation passed in December, deals only with border enforcement. So there was jubilation in the committee room when Judiciary Chair Arlen Specter announced the bill had passed.

Mr. ARLEN SPECTER (Judiciary Chair, Senate Judiciary Committee): The bill is reported to the floor. It's been...

(Soundbite of applause and cheering)

WELNA: Specter was one of four Republicans who formed a coalition with Democrats to push through a bill that rolls back many of the draconian measures approved by the House. Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin persuaded the panel to drop all criminal penalties for those who provide assistance to undocumented foreigners, except for those involved in smuggling.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): And so we have strictly limited this humanitarian exception to those who provide assistance to people already in the United States, not to bring them into the United States.

WELNA: In California, Democrat Dianne Feinstein won approval for an amendment allowing up to a million and a half farm workers to pursue U.S. citizenship.

Senator DIANNE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): I've had growers, I've had farmers say, just let me permanently hire the people that have been working for me.

WELNA: But Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions warned that poor Americans are bound to get hurt.

Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): Some studies show that earnings reductions for low-income people can drop as much as 10 percent as a result of large amounts of immigration. This is a real deal.

WELNA: But across town, President Bush continued demanding legislation allowing guest workers, as he addressed a group of new citizens.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: One thing temporary worker programs should not do is provide amnesty for people who are in our country illegally. I believe granting amnesty would be unfair because it would allow those who break the law to jump ahead of people like you all, people who play by the rules and have waited in line for citizenship.

WELNA: South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham had a tart response to the president's condemnation of amnesty.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): What is amnesty? It's what you want it to be. It's a way to attack the other person's bill, it's a legal concept, but it's also a political concept. Some of us want political amnesty. We want the ability to talk about this and not make anybody mad. Well, I'm afraid that's not going to happen.

WELNA: Graham joined forces with Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy who sponsored an amendment giving all 11 million undocumented foreigners in the country a chance to become citizens, in exchange for paying fees and taking courses, and passing background checks.

Senator EDWARD KENNEDY (Democrat, Massachusetts): No one is putting them at the front of the line. No one is giving them a free ride. They're not getting excused for any action. We're saying, of all the people that are in the line that are coming in line here to the United States, you go to the back of the line.

WELNA: But Arizona Republican John Kyl wasn't buying Kennedy's assurances.

Senator JOHN KYL (Republican, Arizona): You're not going to the back of the line. It is not fair to those who have been playing by the rules, to use another phrase that was cited earlier. It's a little like maybe a rough analogy. A kid sneaks into the movie and the usher comes up and taps him on the shoulder and says you've got to get a ticket. You have to get to the back of the line, and instead of going outside and getting to the back of the line, he says, well just bring me ticket, when the last person in line right now gets his. Meanwhile, he sees the movie.

WELNA: Still, Kennedy's measure prevailed. The battle now continues in the full Senate between those who want more restricted immigration and those who want less.

David Welna, NPR News.

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