Washington Works for Comprehensive Immigration Bill

In addition to tighter borders, the White House is pushing Congress to pass immigration proposals that would make it easier for non-citizens to work in the U.S. The president's two-pronged approach to illegal immigration has met mixed reviews in Congress.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Oh, let's report on the people throwing that political football. We'll come here to Washington, where lawmakers are in the midst of an intense debate over President Bush's call for a comprehensive immigration bill.

Joining us now to talk about the prospects for that legislation, is NPR's senior correspondent Juan Williams.

Juan, good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Are we any closer, as senators debate this, to knowing what kind of immigration legislation will pass, if any?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think we are closer. Earlier, Democrats agreed to allow Republicans to debate a list of amendments to the basic bill. That White House proposal allows for guest workers, as well as more resources to secure the border, and enforce laws against hiring illegal immigrants. The leadership in the Senate, both Republicans and Democrats, supports the president's bill, and believes that the debate that we saw yesterday on these possible amendments will not significantly change the bill.

So the votes yesterday - for example, the Senate voted 83 to 16 in favor of building a 370-mile fence, and using temporary barriers along the border with Mexico. There was also a vote to preserve the right of illegal workers, even if they've been in the U.S. more than two years, to get a chance at citizenship.

INSKEEP: When you say party leaders are on this, are you saying the party leaders are on the same page as the president, both Republicans and Democrats...

WILLIAMS: Exactly right.

INSKEEP: ...at least the leadership?

WILLIAMS: They want this comprehensive legislation.

INSKEEP: Hmm. Now, the White House yesterday sent Karl Rove, the president's top political advisor to meet with House Republicans - moving now, from the Senate to the House. How'd that go?

WILLIAMS: Well, Rove reiterated that the president's serious, Steve, especially about border security, as part of this larger bill that allows people here, without proper documents, to take steps to gain legal status. And according to people in the meeting, he got lots of questions about how National Guards troops will actually help at the border. He also faced questions about the last major immigration bill under the President Reagan in the '80s, which is now viewed as a failure.

The key question there was whether this bill, now being negotiated, can realistically be enforced with I.D. cards that can't be faked, and real attention from Homeland Security officials. White House people in the meeting, said the good news was not that any minds were changed; but that the hard-liners got engaged, and were even asking for follow up meetings.

INSKEEP: There was a call to pass a bill by Memorial Day, which is coming right up.

WILLIAMS: Oh, yeah. And, in fact, I mean, given what happened yesterday, people feel that there is now more momentum, more likelihood that a full bill will be passed by Memorial Day. The president was on the phone Tuesday night, with Senate majority leader Frist and speaker of the House Hastert, to map out strategy moving forward from his Monday speech. First thing they had to do was discuss how to handle budget allocations for putting the National Guard on the border, as part of a supplemental bill for Iraq and hurricane relief.

And they feel that, you know, now they've got something going, and the president is concentrating his political appeals, right now, on border security, as you saw in the televised speech, and as you saw yesterday in the House debate. For example, Senator Jeff Sessions, the Alabama Republican, said yesterday after the vote on the wall that, that vote sends, quote, "a signal that the open border days are over."

INSKEEP: Juan, just very briefly, how anxious are lawmakers about being put on the record, on this issue, during an election year?

WILLIAMS: Very anxious, because the prospect, Steve, is that right now you get a bill in the Senate by Memorial Day. Then, of course, they're going to have to go to conference with the House. And real hard-liners there, the real leaders in this on the House conference side, will be Jim Sensenbrenner, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

And you look forward then, for negotiations over the summer, going into the fall. And, of course, the fall then runs up against those mid-term elections when immigration is going to be a very hot issue. So, they're very worried about the politics of this being on the record. And exactly how voters will respond back at home.

INSKEEP: Juan, thanks very much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's senior correspondent Juan Williams.

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