Unlikely legislation in this Congress

Posted: Jun 20, 2006 12:01 AM

Washington for much of this year has been grappling with immigration issues. The President offered his proposal, which isn't much different than the status quo. Then the United States House of Representatives passed a bill which basically would do two things. First, it would call for securing our American borders. Second, it would make employers responsible for determining if a hire were an illegal resident. Then the Senate weighed in. With a bipartisan majority, led by Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D- MA), the Senate passed an absolutely dreadful bill. Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation denounced the measure, saying it would double or triple the present number of illegal immigrants. Heritage is seen as pro-immigration so the Rector intervention was all the more surprising. Some Senators and many of the House Members branded the Senate bill as "amnesty."

It appeared that the gap between the House and the Senate was so wide that not even Presidential arm-twisting could bring about a result. Into this political impasse has stepped the impressive, thoughtful and energetic Chairman of the House Republican Study Committee, Representative Mike Pence (R-IN). He has introduced a bill which possibly could serve as a compromise in trying to resolve the immigration issue. There are two aspects to this effort, the politics and the policy. First, regarding the politics, it is likely there will be no bill this year. The special election in California which brought Brian Bilbray (R-CA) back to the House has caused more Members to dig in their heels for the House position. Bilbray was trailing Democrat Francene Busby for weeks until a few days before the election when she was taped at a largely Mexican rally as telling an illegal alien that he didn't need papers to vote. Bilbray pounded away on the immigration issue. His views are not unlike those of Representative Thomas G. Tancredo (R-CO), who is the most hard-line Member of the House on immigration. House Members tell me that they can live with no bill on immigration going into the 2006 elections but they can't live if seen as compromising with the Senate bill. So politically, any action on the Pence bill will likely come in the 110th Congress, if Republicans continue to control the House.

As to policy the Pence bill would do four things. First, it would secure the border. Pence believes, as do many of his House colleagues, that this is a matter of national security. He wants that done first and in that sense he is close to the House position as indicated in its bill.

Second, he would deny amnesty to anyone who has come to the United States illegally. That is in direct contradiction to the Senate bill which would, in effect, provide amnesty for current and perhaps future illegals.

Third, Pence would put in place a guest-worker program, without amnesty, to assist American employers who need temporary workers. But those who participate in the guest-worker program would be required to legally have entered our country.

Finally, the Pence bill would provide for tough sanctions against employers who hire illegals. Pence calls for a full partnership in this regard between American business and law enforcement to assure that his program works.

The Pence plan represents the basis for a fair compromise between the House bill and the Senate measure. As it stands now, if the House sent the Senate its bill, it would be defeated and if the Senate sent the House its bill, it would be overwhelmingly defeated. The leadership of both Houses may appoint conferees for a conference committee between the House and Senate but given the differences no one on either side of the Capitol with whom I have spoken believes conferees can iron out a bill acceptable to both Houses. Even if the Pence plan were to be adopted House Members might reject it because it would set up a guest-worker program, and in that sense it appears to be a compromise with the Senate.

The Pence plan has some potential problems which his allies are carefully reviewing. All 12 million illegal aliens now in the United States would have to return home to apply for guest-worker status. Applications would not be handled by the United States Government but by the many businesses which need guest workers. That way, if approved, the guest worker would have a job waiting for him. Those who did not return to the United States until one of the business-run employment centers had issued a guest-worker permit would have a job. Pence believes that this could be done in a matter of weeks. If the Federal Government tried to do it, there would be failure and utter chaos. That much is true. But Pence allies worry that he is too optimistic when he thinks that these employment centers could be organized in a matter of weeks. He bases this notion on the idea that the combination of businesses needing workers and aliens needing money to send back home would activate the system immediately. Pence thinks companies would compete with one another to set up these centers where guest-worker permits would be issued. Guest workers would receive a W permit for six years. They would be allowed one renewal, so the maximum a guest worker could stay in the United States would be a dozen years. Employers, who would be part of the process, would have to be shown this W permit before they could hire a guest worker.

At the end of his status as a guest worker, the employee would be eligible to try to become a citizen, which process would be handled by the Federal Government. No one who flunked a background check because of criminal activity or who was not proficient in English would be allowed to become a citizen. In fact, just to renew his guest-worker status, the employee would be required to pass an English proficiency exam. By the way, before employers could go to an agency to hire guest workers, they would need to try to hire American citizens.

Pence allies also worry that there will be a huge crush of people, after having served as guest workers, who will want to become citizens. How that would be handled is not clear in the Pence bill. But at least if these folks do want to become citizens they will not have broken the law to get here. And presumably they would operate under some sort of quota system, which might be more generous than current quotas but still somewhat restrictive.

Presently there is virtually no enforcement of the Simpson-Mazolli Immigration Act of 1986, signed into law by President Ronald W. Reagan.

The Pence bill deserves serious consideration. It is perhaps fine emotionally to say we permanently should send home all illegal aliens. Even if we went to the expense of flying them all home, most would find a way to return. We simply do not know who is making it across our border. Pence should be applauded for seeking a reasonable compromise. All bills go through revisions before becoming law. No doubt the Pence bill can be refined. But it is one great start to try to find a solution to the immigration mess even if it has to await consideration until the next Congress.