President Bush had lunch with Republican senators Tuesday in a bid to rescue legislation he favors to overhaul the nation's immigration laws. Key lawmakers in both parties also support the legislation, but many others do not, and it was blocked in the Senate last week. Sen. Jeff Sessions, a Republican from Alabama is among the skeptics. He spoke with Steve Inskeep about the luncheon discussion:
Are you persuaded?
Well, no. I think the president made a persuasive case and he promotes effectively the ideal of immigration reform. But the problem is we have to read that bill. It's not an ideal you vote on, it's a piece of legislation that does not meet the goals that he has set or most of us have told our constituents we want to achieve.
Securing the border, and so forth?
Yes, I'd say — but a little more than that. Everyone becomes legal at once under this bill and stays there, no matter what happens. But even the new reforms in it take place — according to the Congressional Budget Office, we would only have about a 13 percent reduction in illegality. So that's just not sufficient. I mean, I think most American people think we'd have a dramatic improvement in reducing the flow of illegality if we have, as this bill does, a substantial increase in legal immigration.
Senator, you'll tell us if this quote is wrong, but the Associated Press is quoting the president in this meeting as turning to you and saying — as he said, that he disagrees with you on this — he said, "Don't worry, I'll still go to your fundraiser!"
Yes, he did. He is — he's really a great person, and I thought he did win some friends yesterday ... I think people will try to give him a chance. I'm sure they're working right now to — some people — to bring more people over to get the votes he needs. I doubt he's going to get them, mainly because of the legislation. But he made clear, in using that phrase, talking about coming to Alabama for me, that he was not holding anything personal against anybody who may disagree with him.
Just to be clear, do you want him at your fundraiser?
Absolutely. Yes, sir.
Now, if this bill remained largely the same, which is what the president is talking about, can you imagine one change that would at least move you closer to voting for it? Living with it?
Not one, I would say, but for example, the bill promised to move to a system more like Canada's in which people would be evaluated, based on the skills they bring to the country, and that they would be admitted on that basis. This bill promised to do that, but it really does not - at least (not) for eight years - in any significant way.
This point system — that's what you're talking about here — you like Canada's system a little better?
Well, it pretends to go in that direction, but does not get there, does not come close to getting there. That was a disappointment ... And I think I'm disappointed that the bill appears not to reduce illegality any more than it apparently does. I thought it might do better than that. It certainly purported to, but it just does not, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
Meaning that you think there will still be illegal immigrants coming across the border?
Oh, absolutely ... They predicted that we'd have a 25 percent reduction in illegality at the border. But we would have a substantial increase in visa over-stays, because we have a lot more people coming to the country on temporary visas.
The president spoke about an emergency spending bill to deal with that part of it, enforcement on the border. That's not enough to satisfy you?
Well, we'd have to see exactly how that's going to be spent, how much it is. But we certainly need to be comprehensive in how we do that border enforcement. It's not there yet. We are a long way from it.