Hastert Takes Stern Immigration Stance

House Speaker Dennis Hastert says he won't negotiate with the Senate over differences between the immigration bills each chamber has produced. Rep. Hastert (R-IL) says he wants to hold hearings on the Senate version first. Analysts say that spells trouble for the Senate bill, and for President Bush.

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There will likely be no deal this year on immigration. After the House and Senate passed separate bills to overhaul immigration laws, the next step was to be a conference to deal with their differences. But instead, House Republican leaders have announced that they will not negotiate until after they hold a series of public hearings on the Senate's bill this summer. Today, Senate Judiciary Chair Arlen Specter retaliated by saying that he will have more hearings too. And that means no conference until fall.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN reporting:

Ever since the Senate approved its immigration bill with the backing of President Bush, House Republicans have been resisting the normal process of negotiation and compromise. Many in the House announced the Senate bill as amnesty because it would legalize millions of immigrants and create a guest worker program.

Their resistance only stiffened earlier this month when a Republican candidate, Brian Bilbray, won a special election for a House Seat in California by emphasizing his get tough line on immigration. This week, House Speaker Dennis Hastert said the House would have more hearings this summer instead of making a deal.

Dan Stein of the Federation for American Immigration Reform says the House is right to call for enforcement first and enforcement only.

Mr. DAN STEIN (Federation for American Immigration Reform): We don't have any kind of credible deterrence in the interior of this country. And until we do, and make a really good faith effort to encourage the people here illegally to go back home, and do this for five, 10 years, I mean how can we even talk about grandfathering the people who remain here? It's totally irresponsible.

LUDDEN: John Fonte of the Hudson Institute organized an open letter to President Bush this week in which 39 conservative activists and intellectuals called for an enforcement only approach. Fonte says a decade's long influx of illegal immigrants has hurt low wage Americans and there needs to be a time out. He doesn't believe the economy is so dependent on foreign workers.

Mr. JOHN FONTE (The Hudson Institute): I think statistics show that illegal immigrants make a small something, you know, less than one percent of the GNP. It's a very small percentage. There may be some restaurants, it's true, going out of business here and there. But let's do this, and then we can see if there's a shortage and then we'll figure it out.

Mr. JOHN GAY (National Restaurant Association): I guess that's a sad stereotypical think tank attitude. Very cavalier about the effects in the real world of a policy that they think up in their air conditioned office.

LUDDEN: John Gay is with the National Restaurant Association and a key lobbyist for a guest worker program. He says he's more than happy for these summer hearings to take the issue to the court of public opinion. Gay concedes if you can just ask people whether illegal immigrants should get citizenship or be sent home, most will say send them home. But -

Mr. GAY: If you say should illegal immigrants be given citizenship if they pay a fine, learn English, hold a job, things like that, that are in the Senate bill, then public opinion shifts to our side and it's up into the seventies.

LUDDEN: A poll to be released tomorrow by the Manhattan Institute even finds majority support for legalization among likely Republican voters. Tamar Jacoby of the Manhattan Institute contends that stricter enforcement won't drive immigrants home, just deeper underground.

Ms. TAMAR JACOBY (Manhattan Institute): American businesses still need these workers. So what will happen is the smugglers and the document forgers and the exploitative employers who don't care about being outside the law, in fact prefer it, will just get stronger. And the legitimate businesses that want to play by the rules will be at a disadvantage. It will be bad for everyone.

LUDDEN: Failing to pass a guest worker program would certainly be bad for President Bush. He's staked much of his waning political capital on pushing the idea. But the Hudson Institute's John Fonte says it's smart for House Republicans to stand firm this election year. They can run on this even against the White House, Fonte says. And it will be a big boom to the GOP.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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