Bill Frist’s Presidential Posturing Undermines Immigration

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

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,


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