As journalists, lobbyists and immigrant families jostled for a place in the back of the austere wood-paneled room, passions ran high as senators argued as to whether a new bill should strengthen America’s porous southern borders, or offer a guest worker program to bring the millions of illegals living in the United States out of the shadows.
Calling the challenge ahead of them, a “gigantic task”, committee chairman
Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), admitted that it would be difficult to gain consensus before a March 27 deadline imposed by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.
“I have seen virtually no agreement on anything when it comes to this immigration bill,” Specter said.
Up for discussion was a 305-page bill cobbled together by Chairman Specter as a compromise based on previous proposals.
Specter’s draft legislation included some aspects of a bill introduced by Senators John McCain and Edward Kennedy that is favored by pro-immigrant groups such as the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform (ILIR).
Specter’s proposal calls for heavy border enforcement provisions while also creating a guest worker program allowing immigrants to work in the U.S. for six years before returning to their home country.
Unlike the McCain-Kennedy bill, however, it offers no chance of citizenship. The Irish government argues that a path to permanent residency must be a key component of any new immigration bill.
Sitting beneath a wooden crest bearing the American eagle and flag, Senator
Charles Grassley, a Republican from Iowa, angrily denounced the idea of a guest worker program, saying it would lead to more illegal immigration.
“If we go forward with a guest worker program, we’ll have a much worse problem,” he said jabbing his finger repeatedly in the air.
“Nobody raises any questions about the illegality of people right out on Main Street, Washington D.C., waiting to get a job,” he shouted.
Democratic senator Dick Durbin rebuked Grassley for his outburst and reminded the committee that four members sitting around the table were first generation Americans from immigrant families
“To start this immigration debate in negative terms is the wrong way to start,” he said. “God only knows where we could be without the immigrant spirit that has made this country.
“The problem is not immigrants, the problem is our system of immigration,”
Durbin said, echoing a view held by many Republicans and Democrats.
The debate in the hearing room sounded abstract at times, but for some of the families who showed up that day, immigration law is a crisis lived day to day.
Before the hearing started, a gaggle of children accompanying one Latino group ran amok among the lobbyists, lawyers and journalists lining up. The excited cries echoed down the long corridors and bounced off the high ceilings. Congressional staffers, clearly unused to such unruly guests in the senate, gingerly picked their way through the crowd.
An overflow crowd, made up heavily of immigrants from Latin America and what appeared to be ranchers from Texas, watched the hearing via a television link upstairs until a harassed-looking legislative aide turned down the volume and announced the room was needed for another meeting. The crowd left reluctantly, telling the aide what they thought of the senator.
As congressional elections approach in November, illegal immigration and increased violence along the border have become hot domestic issues on the electoral trail.
It was clear from this initial day of debate that forging common ground between those who favor enhanced border security and those supporting some type of status for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States will be hard to find.
Lawmakers have just three weeks to come up with compromise legislation. If they fail, Senate Majority leader Bill Frist has threatened to impose his own bill, one that focuses solely on enforcement.
But three weeks seems an impossibly meager amount of time to find a solution that has eluded Congress for decades.
Congress has struggled with the immigration issue for the last 30 years,”
Senator Edward Kennedy told the judiciary hearing.
More than anybody else on the committee, Kennedy has the years on Capitol Hill to know what he is talking about.