Border de­bate shifts to penal­ties

The bill’s au­thors will haggle over how stiff pun­ish­ments should be for il­le­gal im­mi­grants.

Los Angeles Times - - T H E Nation - By Ni­cole Gaou­ette

wash­ing­ton — The am­bi­tious pro­posal to re­vamp the U.S. im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem ne­go­ti­ated by the White House and key sena- tors will con­front a crit­i­cal ques­tion next week: How tough does it have to be on il­le­gal im­mi­grants to pass?

As the Se­nate con­sid­ers the bill, the law­mak­ers who wrote it will need to per­suade skep­ti­cal con­ser­va­tives that the plan does enough to pun­ish im­mi­grants who il­le­gally en­tered the coun­try.

The bill would of­fer a path to cit­i­zen­ship for most of the na­tion’s es­ti­mated 12 mil­lion il­le­gal im­mi­grants.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, know­ing Demo­cratic back­ing won’t be enough to pass the bill, has said it would need sup­port from at least 70 Repub­li­cans. In the Se­nate, pas­sage would re­quire at least half of the Repub­li­cans, as well as some con­ser­va­tive Democrats.

Con­ser­va­tive crit­ics have de­nounced the bill, la­bel­ing it “amnesty” — a po­lit­i­cally lethal charge.

When de­bate be­gins Mon­day, law­mak­ers will haggle over the penal­ties il­le­gal im­mi­grants should face to be­come le­gal res­i­dents, then cit­i­zens. Should they be forced to leave the coun­try first? How much should they pay in fines? Should they be re­quired to for­feit the So­cial Se­cu­rity ben­e­fits they earned while work­ing il­le­gally?

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who was heav­ily in­volved in the ne­go­ti­a­tions, said he wor­ried the bill might end up be­ing a re­peat of the 1986 Im­mi­gra­tion Re­form and Con­trol Act.

That law le­gal­ized some 2.7 mil­lion il­le­gal im­mi­grants, but be­cause man­dated en­force­ment mea­sures were never put in place, mil­lions more are be­lieved to have il­le­gally crossed the border in the hope of cit­i­zen­ship.

“We have to make a ba­sic de­ter­mi­na­tion: Will this bill re­store re­spect for our laws?” Cornyn said. “Or will it have the op­po­site ef­fect and en­cour­age still more dis­re­gard for our im­mi­gra­tion and border se­cu­rity laws?”

Sen­a­tors who helped ne­go­ti­ate the bill are aware of those con­cerns. “What more hur­dles can be placed to be sure we do the max­i­mum to avoid the charge of amnesty?” asked Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). “We are still open to sug­ges­tions.”

In craft­ing the com­pro­mise, Specter, his bi­par­ti­san group of col­leagues and two Cabi­net of­fi­cials had sought to ad­dress such an “amnesty” charge. Al­though the bill would grant pro­ba­tion­ary le­gal sta­tus to il­le­gal im­mi­grants who were in the coun­try be­fore Jan. 1, 2007, it re­quires a num­ber of steps to be­come le­gal.

El­i­gi­ble il­le­gal im­mi­grants would be granted “Z visas” as a step to­ward cit­i­zen­ship. But to get there, they would have to pay a to­tal of $5,000 in fines and $2,000 in pro­cess­ing fees.

Heads of house­hold would have to re­turn to their home coun­try and reen­ter legally, and all fam­ily mem­bers would have to pass back­ground checks.

Af­ter four years, il­le­gal im­mi­grants who want to re­new their Z visas for four more years would have to pass the English pro­fi­ciency test given to those ap­ply­ing for cit­i­zen­ship.

The bill also in­cludes a pro­vi­sion, cham­pi­oned by Sen. John En­sign (R-Nev.), to ef­fec­tively bar fu­ture cit­i­zens from re­ceiv­ing So­cial Se­cu­rity ben­e­fits that they had earned while work­ing il­le­gally, even though they were pay­ing taxes. En­sign’s at­tempt to add this mea­sure to a bill last year failed by a vote of 50 to 49.

Crit­ics say that would pun­ish il­le­gal im­mi­grants af­ter they have be­come cit­i­zens, pos­si­bly leav­ing them in poverty.

The White House made a sim­i­lar pro­posal dur­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions on the cur­rent bill.

Sen. Jon Kyl, a con­ser­va­tive Repub­li­can from Ari­zona and one of the prin­ci­pal ne­go­tia­tors, said, “I don’t con­sider it amnesty.” He in­sisted that “there is no au­to­matic path to cit­i­zen­ship,” not­ing that il­le­gal im­mi­grants who fail to ap­ply for pro­ba­tion­ary le­gal sta­tus or those who com­mit crimes will be de­ported.

But Sen. Jeff Ses­sions (RAla.), who will lead de­bate against the Se­nate bill, said he would “ac­tively op­pose im­mi­gra­tion leg­is­la­tion that does not meet the ex­pec­ta­tions of the Amer­i­can peo­ple on im­por­tant is­sues such as . . . cit­i­zen­ship.”

Im­mi­grant ad­vo­cates are un­easy about the trend of es­ca­lat­ing pun­ish­ment in the last two years of the de­bate.

Dur­ing de­bate on last year’s Se­nate bill, fines climbed from $1,000 to more than $3,000 in fees and fines.

A White House pro­posal floated this year pro­posed a $10,000 fine on top of $3,500 in fees levied ev­ery three years. And at one point in this year’s talks, White House ne­go­tia­tors re­port­edly sug­gested fees and fines amount­ing to $64,000 for a fam­ily of four.

“Some politi­cians ap­pear to have suc­cumbed to sharp in­creases in penal­ties so as to as strongly and vig­or­ously as pos­si­ble deny there’s any whiff of amnesty,” said Jonathan Blazer, an at­tor­ney with the Na­tional Im­mi­gra­tion Law Cen­ter.

Blazer warned that fines had reached the point where “many peo­ple will sim­ply not be able to af­ford to come above ground.”

The Se­nate, how­ever, is very likely to take up pro­pos­als next week to in­crease fees and penal­ties in a bid to counter the “amnesty” la­bel.

Sen. Kay Bai­ley Hutchi­son (R-Texas) has worked with Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) for more than a year on an im­mi­gra­tion plan that would not al­low im­mi­grants to ac­cess any So­cial Se­cu­rity ben­e­fits earned il­le­gally.

The Hutchi­son-Pence pro­posal also goes fur­ther than the Z visa pro­vi­sion by re­quir­ing all il­le­gal im­mi­grants to re­turn home, not just the heads of house­hold.

Some law­mak­ers ar­gue that there is no way to jus­tify giv­ing cit­i­zen­ship to peo­ple who have bro­ken the law, no mat­ter how many hur­dles are put in place.

Rep. Brian P. Bil­bray (R-Solana Beach) said of­fer­ing le­gal sta­tus would just draw mil­lions more il­le­gal im­mi­grants to the south­ern border.

“There is no way we’re go­ing to con­trol il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion if we an­nounce we’re go­ing to re­ward peo­ple who have al­ready bro­ken our laws,” he said.

ni­cole.gaou­ette@la­times.com

Luis Sinco Los An­ge­les Times

RALLY: At an im­mi­gra­tion demon­stra­tion in L.A., peo­ple wave flags as they march down Wil­shire Boule­vard to MacArthur Park. The Se­nate bill would of­fer a path to cit­i­zen­ship for mil­lions of il­le­gal im­mi­grants but would force them to pay thou­sands of dol­lars in fines.

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