WASHINGTON, D.C. – The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday rejected one controversial part of legislation that would make felons of undocumented immigrants, a measure already passed by the lower house and one that has provoked large demonstrations against it by immigrants and their allies across the country.
While the panel did not remove language making unauthorized immigration a criminal offense, it did accept an amendment from Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin to eliminate penalties on churches, humanitarian organizations and individuals who help undocumented foreigners.
Committee members also approved wording that would limit the “criminalization” of entering the country without proper documentation to those who do so after the bill takes effect.
The decision, and that to hire 12,000 new Border Patrol agents over the next five years, and not over a two-year period as approved by the House in December, was agreed to during the final debate in committee on comprehensive immigration reform.
Meanwhile, White House press secretary Scott McClellan refused to comment on whether President George W. Bush would veto a bill that does not include his proposed guest-worker program, after saying that the legislative process for immigration reform had just begun.
Any bill emerging from the Senate must be made compatible with the House bill approved in December, a measure sponsored by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (RWisc.) “There’s going to have to be compromise, and there are going to have to be tough choices. But the President believes very strongly that if we’re going to have a rational, orderly, and secure immigration system, then we must take a comprehensive approach,”McClellan said.
The Judiciary Committee has until midnight to continue polishing the bill’s final text, after which the full Senate will begin debating it starting on Tuesday, said the panel’s ranking Democrat, Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy.
The Senate majority leader, Republican Bill Frist of Tennessee, has threatened to present his own immigration bill in the full Senate if the committee cannot agree on a final text by the deadline.
Lawmakers have made clear that religious or other groups that have furnished help to undocumented migrants will now have to comply with a strict set of requirements, including not providing transportation or extending other services to illegal foreigners.
The central problem in the reform being studied in the Judiciary Committee is what to do with the approximately 12 million undocumented immigrants who the national government and others calculate live in the United States.
Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) said that it is important to approve a “fair” plan to accommodate temporary foreign workers, which provide much-needed labor in agriculture, business and other sectors of the U.S. economy.
According to Leahy, the recent peaceful demonstrations all across the country reflect the need to approve immigration reform that recognizes everyone’s human dignity.
He added that the current debate is difficult because some people don’t want a resolution of the matter or don’t want the parties on both sides of the issue to move closer together, a circumstance they fear would lead eventually to comprehensive reform.
Leahy reiterated his support for the bill crafted by Kennedy and Arizona Republican John McCain that would allow illegal immigrants who have worked in the United States for six years to become eligible for permanent residency.
Kennedy and McCain have proposed that authorities facilitate the provision of Green Cards to undocumented workers who pay a fine of at least $2,000, have paid their taxes and have no criminal record, among other requirements.
The immigration debate is running hot at a time that many senators, with an eye on getting reelected in November, see themselves pressured by conservative groups demanding more vigilance on the border and by business groups that need the foreign labor.