April 10, 2006

What Happened to the Immigration Bill

Carroll Andrew Morse

Assembled from the official legislative history plus assorted media reports...

1. Last year, Senators John McCain and Edward Kennedy introduced an immigration reform bill. Illegal immigrants who had been in the US less than two years would be required to return home and apply for status as “guest workers”. Illegal immigrants who had been in the US for more than two years would be allowed to pay for amnesty with fines and back taxes. Border security provisions were very weak, consisting mostly of forming various committees to study the problem. (A description of the original McCain-Kennedy plan from its supporters is available here). The bill was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

2. The McCain-Kennedy bill sat in committee for almost a year. Senate Majority leader Bill Frist became frustrated with the slow pace of the Judiciary Committee's work and with the fact they were considering only illegal immigrants currently within the US and not serious border security measures. Senator Frist bypassed the Senate Judiciary Committee (possible because of his status as majority leader?) and introduced an immigration reform bill that focused on border security (Senate bill 2454) directly to the Senate floor on March 16 of this year . (A description of Senator Frist's original bill is available here).

3. Spurred on by Senator Frist’s action, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed an immigration reform measure on March 27 of this year that combined the McCain-Kennedy guest worker and amnesty provisions with the Frist border security provisions. Formally this took the form of an "amendment" (Senate Amendment 3192) that, if approved by the full Senate, would replace the entire text of Senator's Frist's bill.

4. The Judiciary Committee compromise lacked the support needed to pass, so more compromise was necessary. Senators Chuck Hagel and Mel Martinez brokered a modification to the McCain-Kennedy proposal. Illegal immigrants here between 2 and 5 years would be required to go to a legal point of entry to the United States to initiate their acceptance into the amnesty program. This was the proposal hailed in media reports last week as the compromise that would lead to passage of an immigration bill.

5. However, several Republican Senators wanted to make other amendments. Here is a partial list as described by Senator Frist on his blog...

  • An amendment by Senators Kyl and Cornyn, which would have prevented illegal immigrants who had been convicted of felonies such as burglary; involuntary manslaughter; and assault and battery from getting green cards
  • An amendment by Senator Isakson, which would have prevented the creation of any new temporary worker program until the Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security certified that our border is secure
  • An amendment by Senator Dorgan, which would have made the temporary worker program truly temporary by refusing to provide green cards to future temporary workers
  • An amendment by Senator Ensign, which would have allowed the National Guard to help secure the border

6. The Democrats didn’t want to allow votes on the Republican amendments and thus refused to allow a vote on a total bill unless the Republicans agreed not to bring their amendments up for consideration. The Democrats proposed sending the bill back to the Judiciary Committee and having the committee rewrite it without considering the floor amendments, but the Republicans voted against recommitting.

(On top of all this, to fully understand what happened, there's a whole other set of considerations concerning Senate rules of proceudure, what order amendments are voted on, and an amendment introduced by Senators Jeff Sessions and Ben Nelson that would have made large changes to the McCain-Kennedy-Specter-Martinez-Hagel-Frist compromise that needs to be taken into account.)

I would like to see the Republicans use the current Senate recess to present their amendments in clear, understandable language to the public and ask why Harry Reid is afraid of allowing a vote on them.