Just What Is Going On In Washington?
Protestors shows their dislike of HR 4437.
Tribune Photo by Ira Cohen
By Andrew Moesel
As different pieces of legislation wind their way through the backrooms, bargaining tables and partisan committees of Congress, immigration reform has made both strange bedfellows and unlikely enemies.
The issues touch nerves in so many political arenas – business interests, geographical biases, emerging voter blocks, etc. – that it has put many Congressmen, especially the Republican majority, in a difficult spot to craft a compromise that would be acceptable to everyone.
When asked about the climate in Washington, U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-Kew Gardens) offered a telling anecdote about the House resolution that is considered the companion to the McCain-Kennedy legislation in the Senate, the bill that allows for a pathway to citizenship and a guest worker program.
An Arizona Republican named Jeff Flake, who sits on the Judiciary Committee with Weiner, drafted this House bill, but refused to introduce it because his party’s leadership told him to wait until the Senate acts. Believing the legislation to be worthwhile, Weiner said he introduced Flake’s resolution into committee for him, but Flake voted against his own bill.
“It was most bizarre,” Weiner said. ”You know, I’m standing up offering the Flake amendment, and even Flake isn’t voting for it.”
The primary division within Congress has been between factions concerned only with security measures – strengthening borders, criminalizing illegal immigrants – and others developing a more comprehensive plan to address all immigrants in the U.S.
U.S. Reps. Peter King (R-Long Island) and John Hostettler (R-Indiana), among others, have introduced separate bills with similar enforcement concepts: putting more security guards and fences at the borders, providing for expedited removal of illegal immigrants and increasing penalties for breaking immigration laws. None provide for a guest worker program or pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
In December, the House passed HB 4437, which included many of these strict enforcement measures and would turn illegal immigrants into felons. The bill created a strong backlash, prompting Senate leaders to pick up the issue once Congress returned from break early this year.
“In a strange way, those elements most hostile to immigration reform, meaning those that want to build fences on the border and throw people out of the country, ended up starting the ball moving forward on immigrant reform by passing this legislation,” Weiner said. “It wound up being the impetus for the Senate to act.”
Senators eventually passed the McCain-Kennedy bill out of committee with bi-partisan support, but Democrats and Republicans then became deadlocked during negotiations on the legislation, ultimately keeping it from the Senate floor for a vote.
The compromise left on the table would have allowed undocumented immigrants who have lived here for more than 6 years to begin the naturalization process after paying any back taxes and undergoing a criminal background check. But it would have also forced those living here between 2-6 years to return to their port of origin to apply for residency, and it provided no provisions for those who have lived here for less than 2 years.
U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley (D-Jackson Heights), who has been at the forefront of the immigration debate before it made national headlines, said he would accept the compromise reluctantly in order to move the issue forward, noting that it would affect 8-9 million of the estimated 11-12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
Crowley said he was confident that Congress would reach a compromise in the coming months, but even then, he believed the immigration issue would not go away. Legislators also have to be cautious with bills such as these – hard won through extensive negotiation – because they are often targeted for unrelated amendments that sponsors will accept out of pressure to pass the bill.
“Something inevitably will happen,” Crowley said. “But the question is how much we will get, what is realistic and what is not, and what we are willing to accept in the final language of these bills.”
Both Crowley and Weiner said the puzzle of immigration reform is missing one piece: The White House. Burdened with low approval ratings, President Bush has made general statements on the topic but has yet to wade into the political muck of Capitol Hill.
“The President can define this issue,” Weiner said, “but he really has to be ready to exert some leadership.”