WASHINGTON -- House Speaker Dennis Hastert indicated yesterday he was willing to consider a guest worker program as part of the immigration-reform package now moving through Congress.
Meanwhile, the Senate began debate on immigration reform with the split between senators who support a new path to legalization for undocumented immigrants and those opposed on full display.
In comments to reporters, Hastert, an Illinois Republican, did not embrace the idea of a guest worker program such as that contained in legislation approved earlier this week by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
But he strove to leave the impression that he is approaching the idea of a guest worker program with an open mind.
"We're looking at all alternatives and we're not going to discount anything right now," Hastert said. "Our first priority is to protect the border. And we also know that there is a need in some sectors of the economy for a guest worker program.
"But we want to see what the Senate comes forward with and what goes through the conference process," he said, referring to the process by which the House and Senate reconcile bills approved by both chambers.
The Judiciary Committee approved legislation on Monday that would allow illegal immigrants who were in the United States before January 2004 to apply for legal status and ultimately citizenship provided they pay a $1,000 fine, prove they've paid their taxes, learn English and have no criminal records.
There are an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States who could benefit from the program the Senate panel's legislation would create.
But the bill is at odds with House legislation passed in December that focused much more on enforcement. If the House bill became law, undocumented immigrants in the United States would be guilty of committing a felony by their very presence in this country. It also calls for construction of a 700-mile fence on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Another bill in the Senate, introduced by Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, also focuses on enforcement rather than on legalizing immigrants already in the United States.
Throughout his presidency, President Bush has pushed for a guest worker program like that in the Senate panel's bill. But opponents say it is tantamount to giving illegal immigrants amnesty for having broken the law.
Asked what he thought of the president's position, Hastert said, "The president is privileged to his views. He was a governor on a border state.
"I'll tell you one thing," Hastert said. "I've been working on this issue for a long, long time and I worked on the anti-drug issue before I was speaker. There are places along the border where we need to build fences ... so we can deal with the illegal-drug issue. ...
"We need to tighten that border up ... ," he said. "We'll look at all alternatives. And you know I'll stand by that issue. I think the Congress will stand by that issue. What we want is results."
One of the senators kicking off the debate was Sen. Pete V. Domenici, a New Mexico Republican. A conservative who favors legalization, he told an emotional story of his mother, an illegal Italian immigrant, who was arrested during World War II when he was a child.
Frank James writes for the Chicago Tribune.