Congressional Consensus Slow on Immigration

With Congress returned from its August recess, many members want to “do something” on immigration, but there’s little consensus on what to do.

Lawmakers report the immigration issue as foremost on many constituents’ minds. But congressional leaders have yet to settle on a strategy for immigration legislation. Three immigration bills have attracted the most attention so far. They set the parameters of comprehensive legislation at this time.

Senators John McCain (R.-Ariz.) and Teddy Kennedy (D.-Mass.) are sponsoring the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act (S 1033). Its House companion, HR 2330, is sponsored by Arizona Representatives Jim Kolbe (R.) and Jeff Flake (R.).

The “McKennedy” bill would legalize virtually all of the 10 million to 12 million illegal aliens. It would also create a guest-worker program so generous it would flood the U.S. labor force and ensure wage depression. It includes no meaningful border enforcement, interior enforcement or employer sanctions provisions. Immigrant-rights groups and big business, support this bill.

Senators John Cornyn (R.-Tex.) and Jon Kyl (R.-Ariz.) are sponsoring the Comprehensive Enforcement and Immigration Reform Act (S 1438), which includes serious-minded border and interior enforcement measures, as well as employment accountability measures such as mandatory electronic verification of workers’ employment eligibility.

The bill creates a guest-worker program that is less problematic than McKennedy, but lacks rigorous market-based safeguards to protect Americans from job displacement and wage erosion. It also gives illegal aliens five years in which to exit the United States. Even with a $2,000 per year fine, it is too long.

Rep. Tom Tancredo (R.-Colo.), leader of the 88-member House Immigration Reform Caucus, has crafted the REAL GUEST Act  (HR 3333). This comprehensive bill contains the toughest set of enforcement measures, border and interior. It includes meaningful employer accountability measures.

The Tancredo bill creates a guest-worker program, but the enforcement measures must first go into effect and show tangible results. The guest-worker plan requires labor market indicators show an actual shortage of workers before foreigners can enter the U.S. workforce.

Among House Republicans, strong sentiment supports the “enforcement first” strategy. Speaker Dennis Hastert (R.-Ill.) would like to move a broader bill, including a new guest-worker program. However, he intends to follow “regular order,” meaning legislation goes through the normal committee process, then to the House floor. Hastert has tasked Rep. John Shadegg (R.-Ariz.) with finding areas of agreement among House Republicans.

Shadegg has held two dinner meetings so far, with House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R.-Wis.) participating alongside him.

Sensenbrenner could move legislation this fall. Some believe he could use the Cornyn-Kyl bill as a starting point, but most sources say it is more likely that Sensenbrenner will take careful notes at the Shadegg dinners, survey the legislation on the table, including Cornyn-Kyl, Tancredo and others, then craft his own package.

Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R.-Tenn.) has said there isn’t time this fall for the Senate to schedule floor time for immigration reform legislation. The agenda includes two Supreme Court nominations, finishing the fiscal year 2006 appropriations and Hurricane Katrina recovery.

And the timing gets touchy. Anything that could cause voters to stay home in the 2006 midterm congressional elections will cost the current majority party House seats.

Any immigration legislation that goes beyond border and interior enforcement, employer accountability and document integrity poses Republicans real problems. Anything that smacks of amnesty and massive guest-worker plans will hurt congressional Republicans with their base constituencies.