WASHINGTON -- The opening bell sounded yesterday on the Senate's effort to overhaul immigration laws, but the panel that will take the lead on the legislation appeared severely divided.
Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee staked out sharply different positions on whether to create a guest worker program, how to enforce border security and how to handle the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the country.
"I have seen virtually no agreement on anything," said Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican who leads the committee, during a meeting intended to begin negotiating the legislation.
He said the committee faced a "gigantic task" in fashioning legislation by a deadline set by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican.
Committee members, four of whom are first-generation Americans, seemed united only in their assessment that the bill Specter provided as a starting point is "an unmitigated disaster," as Specter characterized their criticism.
Frist has told the committee that if it cannot deliver a bill by March 27, he will present a measure of his own for a vote. Like the immigration legislation passed by the House in December, Frist's bill concentrates on enforcement measures.
To meet the deadline, the lawmakers will have to work through Specter's 305-page bill and more than 30 of their own amendments, ranging from proposals that would deny U.S. citizenship to the children of illegal immigrants to amendments that would forbid the Department of Homeland Security from indefinitely detaining illegal immigrants.
Their challenge will be reconciling the views of senators who feel that no reform can take place until there is greater control of the border with those of senators who feel that border security will be possible only with the creation of a guest worker program, which would create a legal pathway for foreign workers to take jobs in the United States.
Specter's bill, which has heavy enforcement provisions, has been controversial in both camps. Specter would create a program that allows workers to come to the United States for up to six years, but would not lead to citizenship.
And while Specter would allow undocumented workers already in the country to stay under an indefinite work permit, they also could never become citizens.
Republican Sens. Jon Kyl of Arizona and John Cornyn of Texas also offered a guest worker plan that would not grant citizenship.
A competing bill by Sens. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, would create a guest worker program that could allow newly arriving workers to gain citizenship. It would also set a pathway for the 11 million illegal immigrants now in the country to obtain citizenship as long as they met certain requirements and paid fines and back taxes.
"The choice is to legalize them or leave them in the shadows," Kennedy said yesterday of undocumented immigrants. He argued that without the incentive of citizenship, illegal immigrants would not come forward. "Only legalizing them will work," he said.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley, an Iowa Republican, dismissed that argument. A guest worker program would simply draw more undocumented immigrants and burden already struggling government agencies, he said, advocating more resources for the border. "If we go forward with a guest worker program, we'll have a much worse problem," he said.
Sen. Diane Feinstein, a California Democrat, proposed a modified version of a guest worker program for the agriculture industry that would provide 300,000 jobs a year for three years. Feinstein said she did not want to expand her program beyond agriculture because "you displace American workers that way."
But others made it clear that they saw no value in even limited programs. Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican who sponsored the amendment to deny citizenship to the children of undocumented immigrants, said the senators "shouldn't do anything until we secure the border."
Nicole Gaouette writes for the Los Angeles Times.