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December 14, 2005
Tough Border Security Bill Nears Passage in the House
WASHINGTON, Dec. 13 - The Republican-controlled House is poised to pass one of the toughest border security measures in more than a decade, cracking down on illegal immigrants and their employers and defying President Bush's call for a comprehensive bill that would grant millions of illegal immigrants already in the United States a right to work here temporarily.

The measure, expected to clear the House this week, would for the first time make it a federal crime to live in the United States illegally. That provision would turn millions of immigrants into felons, ineligible to win any legal status. Currently, living in this country without a document like a visa or a green card is a violation of civil immigration law, not criminal law.

The bill would also broaden the immigrant-smuggling statute to embrace those who shield or offer support to illegal immigrants. Offenders, including employees of social service agencies and church groups, could face up to five years in prison.

The legislation would require the mandatory detention, until removal from the country, of non-Mexican immigrants who are entering the United States illegally; would increase financing for local sheriffs in border states to allow them to detain illegal immigrants; and would toughen penalties for employers who hire them.

The proposal, which would require the Department of Homeland Security to expand greatly a fledgling system intended to verify the immigration status of all the nation's employees, has been hailed by many conservatives in Congress as vital to combating illegal immigration and tightening the border with Mexico.

The bill was approved by the House Judiciary Committee last Thursday. The committee chairman, Representative F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., Republican of Wisconsin, said it would "help restore the integrity of our nation's borders and re-establish respect for our laws by holding violators accountable, including human traffickers, employers who hire illegal aliens and alien gang members who terrorize communities."

But the bill has touched off a furor among some business leaders and moderate Republicans, who support Mr. Bush's plan to grant temporary legal status to the 11 million illegal immigrants believed to be living in this country. In recent weeks, a leader of the Chamber of Commerce and 15 Republican moderates have signed letters to senior Republicans in the House, calling anew for enactment of such a guest worker program.

With most analysts predicting that the leadership's measure will pass in the House on Thursday, many of its critics are pinning their hopes on the Senate, which is expected to take up a comprehensive immigration bill next year. Representative Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who sponsored a bipartisan bill including a guest worker provision, said he felt deeply frustrated by the leadership's bill even though he favored strong border enforcement.

"We have a massive work force out there that is undocumented, and we've got to deal with them," Mr. Flake said. "No one is suggesting that we deport everyone who is here illegally. So that leaves us in a quandary: Do we pretend they don't exist? Or do we bring them out of the shadows?"

"Hopefully," he said, "the Senate will act responsibly and pass a guest worker plan. I wish we were doing it here."

In a swing through border states last month, Mr. Bush said any legislation should include his guest worker proposal, which would allow those currently in the United States illegally to work here legally for a few years before being required to return home and, if they chose, apply for re-entry. He dismissed concerns raised by some Republicans who say his plan amounts to amnesty for lawbreakers.

"Amnesty would say to other illegal aliens, 'Come, and you can come into America and get citizenship automatically,' " Mr. Bush said. "No, I'm for a bill that strengthens our border by providing people with a tamper-proof identity card to let them work in America for jobs Americans won't do, on a temporary basis, and then go back to their country."

Conservatives, however, still view the plan with suspicion. And with midterm elections looming next year, some Republicans are reluctant to support a proposal that they say remains unpopular with voters.

Many Democrats, including Representative Howard L. Berman of California, say conservatives are supporting the House bill solely to gain political points, not out of any belief that it will become law.

"There's a lot of anger out there," Mr. Berman said, "so rather than solving the problem, they're playing to the cheap seats."

Representative John Culberson, a Texas Republican who supports the bill, said that there was indeed anger and that conservatives in Congress seemed to be more in touch with it than did the White House.

"Our constituents are berserk with fury over the unprotected borders," he said. "The borders have been entirely unprotected for far too long."

Of fellow Republicans, Mr. Culberson said, "We've got a tiny little handful that want to pass guest worker legislation."

"But until we get the borders under control," he added, "we'll never win the war on terror, and it's pointless to discuss the guest worker program."

Erin Healy, a White House spokeswoman, said the House bill included security measures that were "a vital component to immigration reform." But she said the Bush administration would push for broader immigration legislation.

"The Senate has already indicated that they plan to take action in the beginning of next year on immigration legislation as well," Ms. Healy said. "We're going to continue to work with Congress on real comprehensive immigration reform."