The U.S. House adopted landmark legislation Friday night that would classify illegal immigrants as felons, pay local police to arrest them, and crack down on businesses that employ them.
Representing the most significant attempt at immigration reform in two decades, the bill passed on the strength of a Republican majority seeking to show average voters that lawmakers are serious about closing the nation’s borders to drug smugglers, terrorists and violent criminals. The final vote was 239-182, mostly along party lines.
Key elements of the bill include mandating that employers use a federal database of Social Security numbers to verify workers are here legally and a $2.2 billion expansion of fencing along nearly all of Arizona’s border and other key points in the Southwest. For the first time, the federal government would provide grants to local police and sheriff’s offices who help to catch illegal immigrants.
"Securing our borders is imperative, and this bill does it," said Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., and leading sponsor of the bill. "We also have to turn off the magnet of employment."
But many lawmakers and observers said the bill is incomplete and never will become law without the addition of some type of guest worker program favored by President Bush and much of the Senate.
"Rather than doing what we know has to be done regarding immigration reform, we’re simply punting the ball to the Senate, hoping they will have the courage to act in ways we cannot," said Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
House Republican leaders said they also favor a guest worker plan, but Congress and the public are too divided on that subject.
"You have to convince the American people we are going to do something about border security before they are going to be willing to engage in a debate about what we do about the 11 million (illegal immigrants) who are here already," said Rep. Daniel E. Lungren, R-Calif.
Friday’s outcome had been predicted for months because dozens of rank-and-file House Republicans are following the lead of strict immigration control advocates such as Reps. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., and Duncan Hunter, R-Calif.
But one member of that group, Rep. J.D. Hayworth, RAriz., said earlier Friday he would vote against the bill because it’s still missing key provisions, such as hiring thousands of additional interior enforcement agents and ending automatic U.S. citizenship for children of illegal immigrants born here.
"I am concerned that the haphazard rush to push this patchwork bill through the House will set us on a path back to 1986 and a policy of amnesty first, enforcement never, and unending illegal immigration," Hayworth said.
Emotions were tense over two days of public debate and private meetings as congressional leaders pushed to wrap up work and leave for a threeweek holiday break.
Democrats, almost uniformly opposed to the bill, accused Republicans of making a "xenophobic attack" on immigrants with provisions to make illegal immigration a felony and to jail everyone arrested until their immigration status is resolved or the migrant is deported.
"They are extreme ideas catering to the lowest common denominator of their political base," said Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla.
One last-minute amendment added Friday would offer $250 million a year to police departments who sign up for training on immigration enforcement, and $1 billion to reimburse local jails and state prisons that are housing criminals in the country illegally.
Divisions among Republicans prompted Sensenbrenner to also try to reduce the criminal penalty for illegally crossing a border from a felony to a maximum of six months in jail. That amendment was defeated Friday, which Sensenbrenner said was part of a Democratic strategy to make the bill more unappealing to the Senate.
All efforts to include a guest worker plan were blocked by Republican leaders, even a proposal from Flake for a nonbinding promise to include the issue in any final legislation. An outside coalition of business lobbyists, religious leaders and immigrant rights advocates criticized the exclusion as well, saying the stakes are too high to wait.
"We are going to get only one bite at this apple in our generation," said Tamar Jacoby, a researcher with the Manhattan Institute, a New York think tank. "If this doesn’t work, we’re going to see a backlash against immigrants we’ve never seen before."