WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Republican leaders in the House and the Senate called yesterday for removing a provision in the House-passed immigration bill that would make it a felony for a foreign national to be in the United States without a valid visa and blamed Democrats for the inclusion of the language.
In a written statement, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee did not change the Republican leadership's support for making the offense a misdemeanor.
The GOP leaders issued the statement in the face of intense opposition among Hispanics over the proposed tougher penalty in legislation designed to curb illegal immigration and make it more difficult for undocumented workers to live in the United States.
The felony provision was a focus of nationwide protests against the House bill, beginning last month in Los Angeles and continuing through last weekend.
At a time of Republican sensitivity on immigration matters, the statement attempted to deflect at least some public criticism of the House bill onto Democrats.
At issue is a bill passed by the House in December that was aimed at strengthening border security and cracking down on smugglers.
Critics say several provisions - including one that would make it a felony to "assist" illegal immigrants in their efforts to "reside in or remain" in the United States - could be used to prosecute anyone who offers humanitarian aid, including medical care, to undocumented immigrants.
The bill, drafted by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., a Wisconsin Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, also would make it a felony for a foreign national to be in the United States without a visa.
Before the House approved the legislation, Sensenbrenner offered an amendment to reduce the infraction from a felony to a misdemeanor. At the time, he said he was making the change at the request of the Bush administration to ease court procedures.
The amendment failed, 257-164. About three-fourths of the votes against it were cast by Democrats.
In their statement yesterday, Hastert and Frist accused Democrats of opposing the Sensenbrenner amendment because of a "lack of compassion."
"There were 191 House Democrats who voted to oppose House Republican efforts to reduce the crime of unlawful presence in the United States from a felony to a misdemeanor," Hastert and Frist said. "Instead, they voted to make felons out of all those who remain in our country illegally."
Democrats say they voted against the Sensenbrenner amendment for strategic reasons.
"From a strategic point of view, Democrats were not going to help Republicans pass the bad Sensenbrenner bill," said Jennifer Crider, spokeswoman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California. "With the felony provision in there, it is a poison pill, as we've seen from all the rallies around the country."
Maura Reynolds writes for the Los Angeles Times.