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Monday, March 14, 2005
Guest-worker debate heats up in Senate

Citizen Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - A Senate bill embodying President Bush's conception of a guest-worker program is expected to take shape when a Senate subcommittee begins hearings today on border security and failed immigration laws.
The hearings before the Senate Judiciary immigration subcommittee initially will take a law-and-order approach to illegal immigration, but Texas Sen. John Cornyn, a former state attorney general who chairs the subcommittee, strongly believes that fortifying the border alone won't solve the problem.

"Border security and immigration reform are pieces of the same puzzle," he told Gannett News Service in an interview at his Senate office. "We cannot have true border security unless we also deal with the economic reasons why people will risk everything to come to the United States to work."

Coming from a border state, Cornyn is no stranger to immigration matters. And he's made his opinions known since joining the Senate in 2002.

He introduced a bill a few months later that would have allowed qualified foreign-born citizens to live and work in the United States for up to three years.

The bill, the Border Security and Immigration Reform Act, sparked a flurry of similar bills. Cornyn's proposal, along with others, died in rancorous debate over immigration reform.

This year, however, Cornyn's bill is likely to get the backing of the Bush administration because it mirrors the president's goal of "matching willing foreign workers with willing American employers." Cornyn plans to reintroduce the bill after the Senate hearings.

Bush has not endorsed any plan, but he has urged Congress to craft legislation that would create a guest-worker program open to illegal immigrants.

Those who follow the immigration debate closely here say Cornyn will play a crucial role as the debate over immigration reform unfolds in Congress because he comes from the president's home state and has a good relationship with him.

"I think he will act as the point man for the Bush administration," said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that opposes a guest-worker program. "We agree that protecting the border is vital, but that doesn't mean you have to let everyone else into the country legally."

Cornyn comprehends the complexity of the immigration debate, said Judy Golub, senior director at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, a group that supports less restrictive immigration laws.

"He gets the entire picture," she said. "He understands the need to repair our dysfunctional immigration laws so that we have a workable immigration system."

If history is any indication, Cornyn won't shy away from a fight. As a rookie senator in 2003, he blasted colleagues and outside groups on the Senate floor for doing "too little to reform a system that cries out for change."

"Special interest groups dominate the discourse, employing the potent but morally repugnant rhetoric of fear," he said. "We can no longer afford to deny both the sheer number of undocumented immigrants in our country and the extent of our economy's dependence on the labor they provide."

In persuading other lawmakers to go along with the president's plan, Cornyn will have to deal with defiant Democrats and equally reluctant Republicans.

Most Democrats want to allow the country's 8 million to 10 million illegal immigrants to earn permanent legal status by proving they hold a job and pay taxes. Many Republicans oppose anything that would provide any kind of legal status to those who broke the law entering the country.

"We must talk to each other and not past each other," Cornyn said. "It's time to have a real conversation with the American people about this issue."

Hey Cornyn, I think that it is "time to have a real conversation with the American people about this issue", you name the time and the place! We'll be there.