Robert Novak

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- With their party sharply divided on immigration, House Republicans this week launched an effort to transform this political liability into an asset by tying it to the war against terrorism. The House GOP's summer of hearings on the emotional issue opened on the Mexican border by portraying the Senate-passed immigration bill as inhibiting local law enforcement officers from preventing terrorist attacks.

Rep. Edward R. Royce's International Relations subcommittee on terrorism started hearings Wednesday in San Diego and Friday in Laredo, Texas, on a "terrorist loophole" in the Senate measure. The subcommittee's testimony contends that a provision in the bill prohibiting local police officers from arresting illegal aliens for civil offenses deprives them of a law enforcement tool that might avert future terrorist assaults.

Democrats have been pummeling House Republican leaders for calling hearings instead of getting down to business in resolving differences between the border enforcement bill passed by the House in a mainly party-line vote and the bipartisan Senate measure providing for guest workers. This week's hearings make the point that the Senate bill is filled with details that have escaped wide attention.

The provision now under scrutiny certainly escaped careful consideration by the Senate in late May, when it hurriedly passed a 796-page bill. Details were handled by the American Immigration Lawyers Association and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's staff. But in recent weeks, the bill has been scrubbed by outside experts -- including Kris W. Kobach, who was Attorney General John Ashcroft's chief adviser on immigration law and now is professor of law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

In a Heritage Foundation paper published one day before the Senate bill passed, Kobach publicly exposed what he called the terrorist loophole. Section 240d would restrict local police from arresting aliens for civil violations, limiting them to apprehension for criminal offenses. That means a sheriff's officer on the border could not arrest someone whose papers showed he had overstayed his visa. "Afraid of arresting the wrong type of illegal alien -- and getting sued as a result -- many police departments will stop helping the federal government altogether," Kobach wrote.

Kobach and Royce point to the fact that four of the 9-11 terrorists, all of whom had violated immigration laws, were stopped for speeding before their attack. Had the police officers asked the right questions, terrorists could have been arrested under current law -- but not under the Senate bill. To Kobach, the "results would be disastrous."

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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