WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- Senate Republicans are set to announce today the most hard-hitting package of immigration enforcement measures seen yet, one that would require jail time for illegal immigrants caught crossing the border, make it harder for them to open bank accounts and compel them to communicate in English when dealing with federal agencies.
Most of the bills stand little chance of being debated in the Democrat-controlled Congress, but the move by some of the Senate's leading Republicans underscores how potent the issue of immigration remains, particularly during a presidential election year.
The bills give Republicans a way to put pressure on the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates to take a tougher stance on immigration. They also reflect a shift toward harsher immigration rhetoric and legislative proposals from both parties since Congress failed to pass a comprehensive overhaul last year.
The package, an enforcement smorgasbord assembled by at least eight lawmakers, consists of 11 bills but could expand to include as many as 14. Some elements echo House bills, but others go beyond House proposals.
One would discourage states from issuing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants by docking 10 percent of highway funding from states that continue to do so. Another would extend the presence of the National Guard on the border, and a third would end language assistance at federal agencies and the voting booth for people with limited English ability.
A bill by Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who is leading the effort, would impose a maximum two-year sentence on someone caught crossing the border a second time.
"The point is to reinforce the idea that most of us here feel that we need to make enforcement and border security a first step to solving the overall problem," said Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana, one of the sponsors.
Although Congress usually avoids tough legislation during an election year, Vitter insisted that he and his colleagues could still get something done.
"There are concrete steps we can take," he said. "None of us see any reason to waste this time."
Other bills in the package would:
Block federal funding from cities that bar their police from asking about immigration status.
Give the Department of Homeland Security authority to use information from the Social Security Administration to target illegal immigrants.
Require construction of 700 miles of fencing along the southern border, not including vehicle barriers.
Impose sanctions on countries that refuse to repatriate citizens.
Deport any immigrant, legal or illegal, for one drunken-driving conviction.
Enable local and state police to enforce federal immigration laws.
Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, said the GOP proposal "falls far short of what is needed."
Democrats want to combine enforcement with a guest-worker program and a way to deal with an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants. Reid "continues to support legislation that is tough on people who break the law, fair to taxpayers and practical to implement," Manley said.
But Democrats have begun embracing a tougher stance on immigration. A confidential study assembled for Democratic leaders this year urged them to use tougher language.
Democrats have focused on offering opportunity to immigrants, but the study by two think tanks urged them to begin speaking in terms of "requiring" illegal immigrants to become legal and about what's best for the United States.
Many House Democrats have gone a step further, endorsing an enforcement-only bill by freshman Democratic Rep. Heath Shuler of North Carolina that would bolster border security and require employers to verify their workers' legal status with an electronic verification system.
The SAVE Act has drawn 140 co-sponsors, 48 of whom are Democrats, many vulnerable freshman who won seats from Republicans.
The Democratic leadership dislikes Shuler's bill and refuses to schedule a debate. Republican leaders are considering collecting signatures for a petition that requires House leaders to bring a bill up for debate if 218 members sign. There are 198 Republicans.
Nicole Gaouette writes for the Los Angeles Times.