National Immigration Law Center
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Our mission is to defend & advance the rights & opportunities of low-income immigrants and their family members.

Efforts Stall in Senate


Compromise bills contain mixture of generous and regressive provisions that present legislators with tough choices
APRIL 9, 2006 (revised 4/20/06)

We feel a mixture of sadness, anger, and relief about the past couple of weeks' activities in the U.S. Senate on immigration reform.  As has been widely publicized, on Thursday and Friday, April 6 and 7, the Senate voted against efforts to move forward on three separate immigration reform proposals and left for two weeks in a stalemate.

Two of these proposals -- the bill that came out of the Judiciary Committee on March 27 and a "compromise" hammered together by Senators Mel Martinez (R-FL) and Chuck Hagel (R-NE) that was similar to, but less generous than, the committee-passed bill -- were "comprehensive":  a mixture of wonderful and awful ideas.  They combined a path to legalization for many undocumented persons living in the U.S. and a reduction in immigration backlogs with a new guest worker program and a host of new, often punitive "enforcement" measures.  The third bill that was prevented from proceeding on Friday had been introduced earlier by Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) and contained only the enforcement measures from the other two bills.

Regrettably, last week's procedural wrangling has been mischaracterized in the media, making it difficult for even a careful observer to avoid inverting many of the players and their motives.  Missing from much of the coverage were the following facts:

  • The two comprehensive bills not only contained a path to legalization for undocumented immigrants, but also included a number of measures that would undermine the spirit and effectiveness of the legalization provisions, eroding the rights of current and future immigrants.

  • Numerous amendments that sought to severely weaken the legalization provisions were introduced and, if brought to a vote, could have passed as part of the Senate bill.

  • The bill that would have emerged from the Senate would almost certainly have been transformed into something much less generous and more punitive when reconciled with HR 4437, the Sensenbrenner bill, by a House-Senate conference committee appointed by Senator Frist and House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

Given these challenging circumstances, pro-immigrant senators and advocates were faced with a tough choice about which reasonable minds could -- and did -- disagree:  whether to permit the "compromise" legislation to move forward and, in all likelihood, to pass the Senate in a form less friendly to immigrants.  On Thursday, April 6, several of the most influential national immigrant advocacy organizations released a statement asking the senators not to agree to any such compromise absent "assurances that the integrity of the bipartisan breakthrough will hold throughout conference negotiations with the House."

Unfortunately, the specific procedural assurances sought in the statement that would have been necessary to protect any deal through to the end were not forthcoming.  As a result, the Democratic leadership refused to agree, and the compromise was defeated.  In the intervening days, some have questioned the motives of Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) and the Democratic leadership for turning down the compromise.  Obviously, the Democratic leadership has complex motives for its choices, as do all politicians involved in this highly politicized election year debate.  But we at NILC believe strongly that the Democratic leadership made the right call this time, from a strategic and substantive perspective, despite knowing that they would be criticized for doing so.   

NILC was one of the first national organizations to push for a legalization program, and we have been amazed at the progress that has been made towards that goal in recent weeks as a result, largely, of the historic outpouring of idealism, hope and opposition to HR 4437 that has been manifested in city after city over the past month.  Like our colleagues and friends around the country, we hunger for sane options for undocumented workers and their families who suffer unjustly under the current system.  We also understand that when a broad-based legalization program is achieved it will not be tied up in a neat package with a bow.

But the sad truth is that the same House of Representatives majority is in place that voted for HR 4437, as is the Senate that acquiesced in enacting the REAL ID Act a year ago.  The House majority and many senators have a vastly different vision of immigration reform than ours, one that entails criminalization of immigrants, miles of fences, internal checkpoints, further militarization of the border and the interior, imposition of a national ID system, deportation and detentions without due process, and more.  The hard reality confronting the the Democratic leadership as it made its decision was that it is far more likely that legislation resembling HR 4437 would emerge from any conference committee than any kind of comprehensive proposal.  We wish things were different, and we recognize that some for whom we have great respect may disagree, but we believe that the risk of bad legislation emerging from such a conference would have been too great under the terms offered by Senator Frist last week.

Next Steps

On Friday, April 7, Senator Arlen Specter (R-PA), chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, introduced a version of the compromise bill and vowed to take it up in committee when Congress returns from two weeks of recess.  However, it is not clear at this time whether there will be enough will on either side to actually take up the bill.  If not, the prospect remains that a punitive-only bill could reemerge later in the year, perhaps as an amendment to some other must-pass legislation.  It is also possible that some smaller, more positive pieces may move forward in the absence of comprehensive immigration reform, such as the DREAM Act or AgJOBS.  On Thursday, in the middle of all of the hoopla in the Senate, the DREAM Act was quietly reintroduced in the House.

Rallies and marches have been planned for tomorrow, April 10, in more than 60 cities across the U.S.  The theme of these rallies is, "'We are America,' regardless of where we are born.  We deserve to be treated with respect and deserve a chance to become citizens of the country we love."  It is now even more important that this "national day of action" be successful.