Paths to citizenship for illegal immigrants may stall reform efforts
Many draw line at 'amnesty'
By Nicole Gaouette, Los Angeles Times January 30, 2007
WASHINGTON -- With a new Democratic-controlled Congress and a president newly committed to bipartisan accomplishments, prospects for an overhaul of US immigration laws have never seemed brighter.
But reform efforts could stumble over the stickiest issue: how to craft a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants that will win the support of lawmakers who draw the line at "amnesty."
In the House, where these conservatives could derail a bill, the job of finding that middle ground falls to Representative Zoe Lofgren, Democrat of California, who heads the immigration subcommittee.
"There's a way to deal with this," she said. "The Republicans I've listened to make it clear they're open to dialogue, to practical solutions."
Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, are pursuing the same goal as they develop a plan based on last year's comprehensive immigration bill, which passed the Senate but not the House.
In his State of the Union address last week, President Bush stressed advances in border security and enforcement, a pitch to lawmakers who are nervous about reforms that could be seen as rewarding people who entered the country illegally. Advocates for a broad immigration bill say it will need the support of at least 20 Republicans in the Senate and perhaps 40 in the House.
"They exist, they just have to be reassured about some things," said Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute who backs comprehensive immigration reform. "How do you bring along the people who said 'no' last year?"
The approach Bush took in his speech is a good start, she said. "He talked to them about border security, illegality in communities, assimilation, about working with local cops and communities. I think it's shrewd. I don't know if he can move those people, but the way to do it is address those concerns."
The Senate bill that passed last year encompassed stepped-up enforcement, a program to let immigrants in as guest workers, and a process for illegal immigrants to become legal.
The Senate seems likely to pass a similar bill this session.
In contrast, the House passed an enforcement-only bill last year, but never debated broader legislation. House leaders will not only have to appeal to Republicans, but to freshmen Democrats who campaigned for tougher immigration enforcement.
As a result, lawmakers are crafting legislation with conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans in mind.
"A lot of members of Congress made campaign promises, so one of the challenges is to create a comprehensive bill that's consistent with the commitments people made during the campaign," said Representative Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, a co sponsor of the House version of the Senate bill.
In the first three weeks of Congress, Republicans introduced enforcement bills in both chambers and offered tough immigration-related amendments to unrelated Senate legislation.
A bipartisan Senate group proposed a bill that would give illegal farm workers a way to become legal permanent residents, a step toward citizenship. And Democrats announced their intention to reexamine the plan to build a 700-mile fence along America's southern border, which the previous Congress passed.
"Our challenge is to come up with a bill that will get broad support," said Lofgren. "The House bill that passed last year was a very Draconian measure. That's not what the country wants, nor what I intend to pursue, but we need to have a dialogue. I'm hoping for a comprehensive package, but I'm pretty confident I'm not going to get everything I want."
She warned that the House process will be slower than the Senate's, but said that she believes lawmakers are ready to act, particularly after watching anti-immigrant colleagues like former representative J.D. Hayworth, Republican of Arizona, lose to candidates who back comprehensive reform.
Senate leaders Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, and Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky, have made immigration one of the first 10 bills they will take on. McCain and Kennedy are aiming to introduce their legislation in February and are reexamining the section on legalizing illegal immigrants.
The previous bill included a three-tiered approach to illegal immigrants based on length of stay in the United States, requiring some to leave and allowing others to stay.
It was designed to appeal to conservatives uncomfortable about treating newly arrived illegal immigrants the same as those who have been in the country for many years .
But the Bush administration has told lawmakers that is unworkable.
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