Immigration issue builds a wall across Congress
Sunday, June 11, 2006
By Bill Cahir
WASHINGTON -- Among the many issues confronting members of Congress this year, immigration remains a dangerous land mine.

The issue can blow up in a lawmaker's face, regardless of party affiliation, because voters care about the problems associated with illegal immigration: rising health care and education costs, depressed wages, and the proliferation of new languages in schools and communities.

"It's more just fear of the unknown," says William H. Frey, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Children or grandchildren of immigrants, some lawmakers see the issue in softer terms. They don't want to alienate a growing population of immigrants, some of whom may be eligible to vote. And they don't want to be seen as responding to native-born sentiment akin to racism or bigotry.

President Bush has defied some of the law-and-order sentiment in his own party to call for the creation of a guest-worker program that would let Mexicans work temporarily in the United States.

"There are those here in Washington who say, 'Why don't we just find the folks and send them home.' That ain't gonna work," Bush said at a Hispanic prayer breakfast in Washington this week. As governor of Texas, Bush courted the Hispanic vote with immigrant-friendly rhetoric.


Congress captured both anti-immigrant and pro-immigrant sentiment in two different bills this year.

The House measure, passed in December, would authorize the construction of a wall along one-third of the southwestern border, make it a felony for an illegal alien to live and work in the United States and impose criminal penalties on people who shield illegal immigrants from federal authorities.

The Senate proposal, while pumping more money into the U.S. Border Patrol, would allow illegal aliens to apply for permanent residency after working in the United States for at least five years, undergoing a background check and paying a set of fines and fees.

"Let me say that amnesty is wrong, because amnesty rewards someone for illegal behavior," U.S. Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said at a recent press conference.

U.S. Sen. John McCain, a likely GOP presidential candidate, is backing the Senate bill. He claims that Congress must attempt to help an estimated 11 million illegal aliens gain some foothold on a path toward citizenship.

"To them, we will provide you with a path to citizenship so you can come out of the shadows and educate yourselves and feed your families and become very profitable and very important members of our society," said McCain, R-Ariz.


U.S. Rep. Robert Andrews, characteristically sure-footed on most issues, has stumbled with President Bush's proposal to deploy up to 6,000 National Guardsmen to the southwestern border.

Andrews, D-1st Dist., initially endorsed the president's proposal to have troops assist the U.S. Border Patrol.

"I will support any effective effort to protect our borders, including the intelligent use of the National Guard," Andrews said in a statement issued by his chief of staff, Bill Caruso, on May 15.

Andrews later attended an Armed Services Committee hearing on the use of the National Guard in border-support functions. The congressman backpedaled after hearing testimony from Pentagon officials about rules of engagement that would allow National Guardsmen to shoot border-crossing suspects in self-defense or in defense of others.

"These (National Guardsmen) are at some point going to confront and engage people trying to cross the border, and may have some hostilities as a result," Andrews said in an interview. "That's not training."

"It really worries me. There is a long tradition in this country of very, very careful limitations on the military use on our own soil. And I don't want to see that change just because of political motivations about border patrol. I just think it's very worrisome," Andrews stated.

Andrews on Friday said he wanted Congress to pass a bill that would shut down the border; punish smugglers who bring undocumented workers into the country; and authorize illegal immigrants earn legal status if they can prove that they have obeyed the law, maintained their jobs, paid taxes, and forged ties to American citizens, "such as being the parents of children who are U.S. citizens."


Generally, New Jersey Republicans support the enforcement-oriented House bill, which passed 239-182. Only U.S. Rep. Chris Smith, R-4th Dist., crossed party lines to oppose it.

Otherwise, the House measure has the support of U.S. Reps. Frank LoBiondo, R-2nd Dist.; Jim Saxton, R-4th Dist.; Scott Garrett, R-5th Dist.; Mike Ferguson, R-7th Dist.; and Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-11th Dist.

"Deploying the National Guard to the border is a temporary solution," Frelinghuysen said in a statement provided by his press spokesman, Steve Wilson. "We need more Border Patrol agents and more sophisticated surveillance technology, both of which would stem the flow of illegal immigrants, illegal drugs, and human trafficking."

All seven New Jersey Democrats and Rep. Smith opposed H.R. 4437, the House immigration bill.

U.S. Sens. Bob Menendez and Frank Lautenberg, both New Jersey Democrats, backed the Senate legislation.

Menendez on May 25 issued a statement in which he claimed the Senate measure would "reflect economic realities by creating a path to citizenship for some undocumented immigrants if they pay a fine, learn English, undergo a criminal background check, and go to the back of the line."

Although the Senate bill has bipartisan support, the House measure may have gained new life this past week.

Brian Bilbray, R-Calif., won a hotly contested race in California's 50th congressional district on Tuesday - replacing former U.S. Rep. Randy Duke Cunningham, the bribery convict - in part by emphasizing his support for a border fence and by opposing any new guest-worker program.

Bilbray's victory over a Democrat identified with a pro-immigration stand persuaded House Republicans that their loyal GOP constituency, angry about federal spending and frustrated with the war in Iraq, still would turn out to vote against any kind of amnesty program for illegal aliens.

House Majority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, on Thursday said GOP lawmakers wanted to pass a final immigration bill that would "go after those who have violated the laws, that will enforce our borders, and help us begin to better enforce our laws here in America."