Senate Begins Contentious Debate on Immigration Policy

A divided Senate, led by a divided Republican party, begins the debate on overhauling immigration policy. Whatever the Senate comes up with, it will have to reconcile the legislation with a very restrictive House bill.

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Moving to Capitol Hill, the sharp differences among Republicans on immigration were on full display today in the Senate. New legislation that would allow millions of undocumented immigrants to become legal was added to a bill on the Senate floor.

NPR's David Welna has that part of the story.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

The immigration debate split Republicans into two camps. There are those who, like most Democrats, think the only way to deal with the more than 11 million undocumented foreigners already in the country is to allow them to pursue citizenship, a position the divided Senate Judiciary Committee adopted earlier this week. And there are those such as Georgia's Saxby Chambliss who say legalizing those immigrants amounts to amnesty.

Senator SAXBY CHAMBLISS (Republican, Georgia): I don't think it's fair to call the legislation passed by the Judiciary Committee a guest worker bill. It's more appropriately named a citizen worker bill, because it provides a clear new path to citizenship for aliens who are currently in the United States illegally.

WELNA: Republican conservatives say the first thing Congress should do is get the border with Mexico under control. Arizona's Jon Kyl says his state is feeling the effects of a border breakdown.

Senator JON KYL (Republican, Arizona): Last year, something like 150,000 criminals entered the country. And these are not petty criminals. These are murderers and rapists and child molesters and drug dealers of the worst kind.

WELNA: But Arizona's other Republican senator disagrees. John McCain says a border crackdown won't solve the immigration problem.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Despite quintupling the Border Patrol budget, despite the employment of new technologies and tactics, all to enforce current immigration laws, illegal immigration drastically increased, I repeat, increased, during the 1990s.

WELNA: McCain cosponsored the legislation that allows millions of undocumented immigrants to acquire citizenship over an 11-year period if they pass ten different hurdles, including learning English.

Senator MCCAIN: It is not amnesty. Amnesty, as I observe, for all practical purposes, is what exists today.

WELNA: Other Republicans who also back what they called earned citizenship say many of their colleagues are coming around to favor a comprehensive policy of border security and legalizing immigrants. Here's South Carolina's Lindsey Graham.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): Among the Republican conference I see a shift toward a comprehensive view to solve this problem, and the more you know about the committee bill, the more people like it.

WELNA: And Judiciary Committee chair Arlen Specter sees that shift going on with House colleagues as well.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): You had Speaker Hastert saying yesterday that he thinks we ought to have a guest worker program. That's a significant departure from the House bill, which is enforcement only.

WELNA: Hastert actually only said some sectors of the economy need a guest worker program, and said nothing about citizenship, probably the thorniest issue in the whole debate

David Welna, NPR News, the capitol.

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