Congress Split on Approach to Immigration

Many differences divide the Senate and House plans to overhaul immigration policy. The House version is mostly about enforcing restrictions on entering the country. The Senate measure has some of those provisions, but it also sketches a process by which immigrants who are illegally in the United States can get official permission to stay.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

As we've just heard, the next step for the Senate's immigration bill is a conference committee. There members of the Senate will try to negotiate a compromise with House members, who passed a vastly different immigration bill last December. Finding middle ground will be no easy task.

We're joined now by NPR's Jennifer Ludden. Jennifer, remind us about the House bill. What's the difference there?

JENNIFER LUDDEN reporting:

Well, the main differences are that the Senate bill has a lot of items that are not in the House bill and probably the most contentious one of those is what critics call amnesty, what the Senate calls earned legalization for the 11 to 12 million immigrants who are in the country now.

NORRIS: Right, they don't use the A word.

LUDDEN: They don't use the A word. And the House says, well, you're not fooling us. This is a bright red line for some members of the House. They insist there's no way they're going to vote for this. Doesn't matter if they have to pay a fine, pay taxes, learn English, they claim they have public opinion on their side and this is where they draw the line.

It's also the same issue that a number of senators have said is crucial. That if you don't give these immigrants a chance to, you know, become citizens eventually down the road, you're going to create this subclass and ethnic tensions like we see in Europe. Some of them were talking about that. So this is probably going to be the toughest hurdle in the conference committee.

NORRIS: Now, one other thing that's actually missing from the House legislation, a guest worker program.

LUDDEN: That's right. I've heard a number of representatives say they don't oppose this in principle and they could consider it if they feel there's enough security along the Mexico border. But, again, the Senate bill would give these guest workers a path to eventual citizenship and many in the House say no, they'd approve a temporary program as President Bush has spoken about repeatedly. So, you're going to have the same debate there about what is the long term role of these workers in our society.

NORRIS: What are the other key differences?

LUDDEN: Well, the House bill does also not call for an increase in legal immigration and there's quite a substantial one in the Senate bill. It hasn't got as much of the debate, but it more than doubles the number of employment based visas. It would increase the number of family members of U.S. citizens that could come every year. There's nothing for that in the House. Also there's this controversial part of the House bill that would make unlawful presence in the U.S. a felony.

Now, there is probably some room for compromise there because some key House members have said they're open to reducing that to a misdemeanor charge. And I think it's worth noting, that is something already in the Senate bill. It too would make it a criminal misdemeanor for those who enter the country illegally, although not for those who came with a Visa and then overstayed. The House bill would make those also criminalized.

NORRIS: And what about the issue of the wall or the fence or whatever they call it? The issue we just heard about in David Welna's piece.

LUDDEN: Double what's in the Senate bill, 700 miles of fencing in the House bill versus about 350 miles in the Senate.

NORRIS: Overall it doesn't sound like someone would want to place a bet on the two sides finding a compromise there.

LUDDEN: No. Don't put your money at risk here. I think that, you know, if you look at it, the only thing both sides really agree on is border security. Everyone says we've got to get tougher on the border. And there are many, many measures in each bill to do that.

So, you kind of have to wonder if in the end is this what it's going to come down to? You know, are they going to defy the White House and the Senate Majority Leader who have insisted that we need, you know, all sides to this, and maybe come out to the choice between an enforcement only bill or nothing.

And if that happens, it's going to be tough. Because for Democrats, that don't want to be seen to be weak on security, but they do believe, many of them, that it's a terrible idea to only crackdown on the border and on employers without giving some legal way for millions of low wage workers to be here. They'd rather pass nothing. For Republicans if you pass nothing, it's another failure for President Bush and a Republican dominated Congress.

NORRIS: Who are likely to be the key players in this conference?

LUDDEN: We don't know all of them. We do know that on the Senate side there are really people from both sides of this. There are staunch, some of the most outspoken supporters of legalization, Republicans as well as Democrats. And there are Republicans very heatedly opposed to legalization. It's going to be, you've already got just one side of the conference there that's debating among itself.

NORRIS: Sounds like a scrum. Thank you, Jennifer.

LUDDEN: Thank you.

NORRIS: NPR's Jennifer Ludden. And there's a comparison of the House and the Senate bill at our website. You can find that at NPR.org.

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Congress Split over Immigration Revamp

new immigrants

Sheriffa Ousman (center-left) and her husband, Sabeel (center), of Georgia, originally from Trinidad and Tobago, take part in a citizenship ceremony with other immigrants, May 22, 2006, in Mount Vernon, Va. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Alex Wong/Getty Images

After weeks of emotional and often divisive debate, the Senate has approved the biggest overhaul of U.S. immigration policy in two decades.

In Depth

But the battle isn't over: Senators face a difficult negotiation process with their counterparts in the House, who've taken a sharply different approach to immigration. The Senate legislation calls for tighter border security but also provides a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants living in the United States. In contrast, the bill passed by the House in December focuses exclusively on border security and enforcement.

Below, a comparison of the two bills:

BORDER FENCING

House: Calls for the construction of reinforced fencing of at least two layers along 700 miles of the 2,000-mile U.S. border with Mexico. That's equivalent to the distance from Atlanta to Chicago. The fence would run across parts of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

Senate: Calls for the construction of about 370 miles of reinforced, triple-layer border fencing. Also adds 500 miles of vehicle barriers along the southern U.S. border.

GUEST-WORKER PROGRAM

House: Has no provisions for a guest-worker program.

Senate: Allows up to 200,000 foreign workers to apply for U.S. guest-worker permits each year. Guest workers would receive an initial three-year visa, with the ability to extend the visa once for another three-year period. After four years, foreign workers would be able to apply for permanent U.S. residence.

WORKPLACE ENFORCEMENT

House: Requires employers to use an electronic verification system to screen employees' Social Security and foreign identification numbers with the Department of Homeland Security. Requires the system to be in place within three to six years. Imposes fines of up to $40,000 on those who hire undocumented workers.

Senate: Also requires employers to screen all new hires against an electronic verification system. Mandates that the system be in use 18 months after Congress funds it, and that workers' information be submitted within three days of their hire. Fines employers up to $20,000 for each illegal immigrant they hire. Authorizes hiring 10,000 agents to enforce workplace rules.

CRIMINAL PENALTIES FOR ILLEGAL STATUS

House: Makes it a felony to live illegally in the United States. Also mandates criminal penalties for those who help illegal immigrants enter or stay in the country. Requires new immigrants to clear background checks for prior criminal records, links to terrorism and prior use of fraudulent documents before they are granted legal status. Allows deportation of any illegal immigrant convicted of driving under the influence.

Senate: Makes it a criminal misdemeanor to have entered the country illegally; however, those who have overstayed their visas are not subject to misdemeanor charges. Mandates penalties for smuggling illegal immigrants, but allows for exceptions for those who offer "humanitarian" aid to undocumented aliens. Provides for immediate deportation of immigrants — legal or illegal — who are convicted of a felony or of three misdemeanors unrelated to their residency status. Permanently bars those convicted from applying to the guest-worker program or other paths to U.S. citizenship. Allows immigrants facing court-ordered deportation because of immigration-related violations the chance to appeal.

PATHS TO LEGALIZATION (EARNED ADJUSTMENT OF STATUS)

House: Makes no provisions for illegal immigrants to gain legal status.

Senate: Classifies illegal immigrants into three groups:

— Those in the United States for less than two years would be deported.

— Those in the U.S. between two and five years would need to register with the Department of Homeland Security, leave the country and return through a port of entry before applying for legal status. They would eligible for U.S. citizenship in about 13 to 15 years.

— Those in the U.S. longer than five years would be allowed to stay in the United States while they apply for legal status. This last group would need to work in the country six more years, pay back taxes, learn English and U.S. civics, pass a background check and pay a fine.

Makes farmworkers eligible for legal status, provided they can prove they've been working in agriculture for at least 863 hours or 150 work days during the 24-month period ending Dec. 31, 2005. Over the next five years, up to 1.5 million farmworkers would be eligible for legalization under this provision.

GREEN CARDS

House: Does not address "green cards," which give immigrants legal permanent residency.

Senate: Caps the number of green cards available to immigrants and their family members each year at 690,000. That figure does not include the farmworkers and undocumented aliens who would be eligible for legalization under the "earned adjustment of status" provisions of the bill.

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