Immigration’s 11th Hour

Bill Frist’s Presidential Posturing Undermines Immigration Debate

by Nelson Harvey

The bipartisan Senate Judiciary Committee was a hot zone last Monday as Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Jeff Sessions (R-AL), and Arlen Specter (R-PA) wrestled over and ultimately passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill that — if signed into law — would give some 11 million people currently living illegally in the U.S. a realistic shot at citizenship while creating annually 400,000 new green cards for foreigners wishing to come live in America. Turning up the heat was Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who set an immutable March 27 deadline for the committee to release an immigration proposal; if they failed, Frist warned, he would bring his own enforcement-only immigration bill — aimed at beefing up the borders and allowing local police to enforce immigration law — to the Senate floor this week.

Frist’s ploy may have been presidential posturing with 2008 in mind, playing to the far-right constituency. But the committee couldn’t help but take heed; as Specter put it, “It’s either his bill or ours.” As a result, the senators had roughly seven hours yesterday to finish cobbling together a proposal from three separate immigration bills: McCain-Kennedy, Cornyn-Kyl, and Specter’s version, the so-called Chairman’s Mark. The bill they assembled was an eight-section document that dealt with vital economic and national-security issues, and it represented the first comprehensive Senate effort on immigration reform since 1986.

The trouble with speedy legislative maneuvering is often sloppy policy. Specter’s mind, through much of the day, seemed more focused on the clock than the proposal at hand. When Feinstein introduced an amendment to address the displacement of U.S. citizens by foreign students in public universities, Specter cut her off. “So you want to raise the fees for foreign students? I’ll agree to that, if it will limit debate.” Votes were cast, and a provision to raise the application fee by $1,000 was promptly inserted.

On another occasion, an amendment by Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) to increase the annual disbursement of H-1B visas for highly skilled workers was passed amid a flurry of confusion. Grassley threw out a seemingly arbitrary figure for the quota — 200,000 — but said he would be willing to negotiate. Minutes later, after some ambiguous calculations by Specter’s staff, the chairman suggested 220,000, and abruptly staged a vote. “All in favor of Grassley’s amendment …” he said, prompting Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) to ask, “Does anyone know what it was?”

The groups that seemed most impacted by the committee’s policy-roulette were foreign students and highly skilled workers, but the ripple effects didn’t stop there. Senator Sessions came to one section of the legislation armed with 11 amendments on issues from border technology to a potential study analyzing the impacts of the ultimate Senate bill. After being rebuffed by Specter’s repeated insistence that he “save it for the floor,” a disgruntled Sessions resorted to pulling out a series of apocalyptic bar graphs that would have made disciples of Paul Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb smile. He muttered some fuzzy math figures about how immigrants would strain our infrastructure and ultimately opted to skip out early on the hearing.

When the Judiciary Committee’s bill hits the Senate floor this week, Frist is unlikely to crack the whip with the same enthusiasm he showed previously. The 12-6 Judiciary Committee vote was a sound, bipartisan rejection of the hold-the-line immigration philosophy that Frist’s legislation expressed.

Give Us Your Poor In addition to the guest-worker program and the increase in green cards, the Judiciary Committee’s bill would exempt those offering humanitarian aid to immigrants from prosecution and allow temporary workers to apply for legal status without leaving the United States, provided they meet work, language, and citizenship requirements. It also has particular import for the state of California.

An amendment proposed by Senator Feinstein that is part of the language contained in the final bill would authorize putting up to 1.5 million undocumented agricultural workers on a path to U.S. citizenship, a step toward providing a permanent workforce for an industry that generates $31 billion annually in California. The program is intended to counteract labor shortages that have hobbled the industry in recent years, as first-time immigrants either opt for less strenuous and more lucrative jobs or never make it to the U.S. in the first place, due to tighter immigration controls in the wake of 9/11.

Under Feinstein’s proposal, workers could apply for a so-called blue card so long as they had worked at least 150 annual workdays in agriculture over the previous two years. After three to five more years of working 100-150 annual days in the agriculture industry, a worker would be eligible to apply for a green card, paving their ultimate path to citizenship. Benefits for those holding blue cards would include the ability to travel in and out of the U.S., as well as a right to legal work for the cardholder’s spouse. Participants currently living in the U.S. illegally would have to pay a $500 fine and submit to a background check for violent crimes. The program would be evaluated for effectiveness after five years. The United Farm Workers and several other agricultural groups have endorsed the proposal.

The bill would also address border security, by adding some 12,000 full-time border patrol agents over a five-year period and phasing in a national database to cross-check the employment status of guest workers. But the employment provisions, among them Feinstein’s agricultural proposal, reek of something that many conservative politicians have come to loathe: amnesty. So long as the Judiciary Committee legislation provides legal recognition and eventual citizenship for some workers, it is not likely to be a Frist-friendly bill, and debate over it will be contentious.

But the Majority Leader wants the matter wrapped up in two weeks, just in time for the spring recess. While this may be feasible, it should by no means be binding, and the Senate bill should receive a much higher level of examination than what it received in Monday’s legislative footrace. The work of the Judiciary Committee was a heartening start, but a hastily conceived immigration proposal would likely initiate a national disaster.

“I oppose this forced march,” said Feinstein around noon, as the clock continued to tick. “We are meant, whether we like it or not, to be a deliberative body.” Amid murmurs of agreement, Specter then quipped, “I’d like Senator Feinstein’s remarks forwarded to the Majority Leader as promptly as possible.”

Nelson Harvey was an intern at The Santa Barbara Independent and is currently a freelance writer and blogger in Washington, D.C.

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