Full Senate to Debate Immigration Reform Bill

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The full U.S. Senate debates an immigration reform bill Tuesday that would allow many of the close to 12 million estimated undocumented immigrant workers now in the United States to remain in the country. Alex Chadwick discusses the bill and the heated congressional debate on immigration with Andrea Seabrook, reporting from Capitol Hill.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Immigration, which has brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets of American cities and communities in the last week, is on the floor of the Senate today. Yesterday, a bill made it through the judiciary committee and protests continue against an immigration bill that already passed the House. NPR's Andrea Seabrook joins us from Capitol Hill.

Andrea, what about the bill that passed last night, and what is going on in the Senate today?

ANDREA SEABROOK reporting:

Well, the bill that passed last night is actually pretty different from what we sort of were watching take shape. It's certainly different from the House bill that's already passed. It would double the size of border patrol along the U.S.-Mexico border. It would authorize more money to be spent on monitoring the border, opens up more visa slots for migrant agricultural workers and other professions. But the biggest surprise of this bill is that it would allow illegal immigrants who are already here and working, some 11 million people we're talking about, to apply for legal status and eventually citizenship without returning to their home country first. They would have to pay a fine, learn English, some other restrictions on it. But this is what many opponents of the legislation, especially a large part of the Republican Party, call an amnesty program, because they say it rewards people, allows them to stay, who broke the law to come here in the first place. And this is...

CHADWICK: And...

SEABROOK: ...what really sets up a difference.

CHADWICK: Yeah, this is the big contentious issue here. Now the Senate leader, the Republican senator from Tennessee, Bill Frist, is introducing his own bill on the floor of the Senate today.

SEABROOK: His bill is a lot more like the House version of the bill. It would crack down on border patrol. It's much more of a teeth bill, in terms of enforcing immigration laws that already exist. It doesn't have the same kind of guest worker program. Fascinating to watch, politically, that the bill that did pass is sponsored in part by John McCain of Arizona, a Republican who many think is running for president in 2008, and Frist's bill, another man many think is running for president in 2008, of course, Bill Frist of Tennessee. We almost have the battle of 2008 here in 2006 on the Senate floor.

CHADWICK: And what's really also interesting in this is President Bush's position. Wouldn't the president be more comfortable with the bill that passed the Judiciary Committee last night than the one that Mr. Frist and the House Republicans are talking about?

SEABROOK: Well, yes. I mean, he most certainly has come down on that side of the issue, the side that most Democrats are swaying to, and you can't even call it moderate Republicans. It doesn't skew moderate Conservative. It skews more, who lives along the border? The John McCains of the world and then the sort of inner parts of the country, Wisconsin and well, you know, away from the Mexico border there, a little bit more against this kind of guest worker program. You know, one of the things that's fascinating is that, you know, it's really going to set up a couple of political battles.

You've got the battle between the House and the Senate. The two bills far, far apart at this point, at least if you assume that the one that came out of the Judiciary Committee is probably going to pass the Senate. You've also got the president coming with some Republicans fighting other Republicans on this kind of bill. There's a lot of political heavy lifting to be done here in an election year, when there's almost more of an incentive to do nothing in some ways than to do anything that would rock the boat.

CHADWICK: Well, they're going to be rocking it all this week on the floor of the Senate and you'll be following that debate for us. Thank you. NPR's Andrea Seabrook at the Capitol.

SEABROOK: You're welcome.

CHADWICK: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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