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Highlights from the First Week of Debate Over an Immigration Reform

Immigration Update

May 25, 2007

On the last day of Senate debates before a weeklong Memorial Day recess, an immigration reform bill survived a round of amendments aimed to gut the plan, including one to bar undocumented immigrants from legalization, a cornerstone in the bipartisan compromise reached last week.

The amendment proposed by Sen. David Vitter (D-La.) was defeated 66-29 after more heated exchanges over the legislation in a debate that has cut through party lines and symbolizes national division over immigration reform. Vitter, representing a vocal conservative constituency, called the program to legalize the nation's 12 million undocumented immigrants "amnesty pure and simple."

As the senators prepared to return home for the week, the debate filtered into the public, with President Bush standing before cameras in a Rose Garden news conference to vigorously defend a fragile compromise that, reached behind closed doors, represents many of his views on immigration.

A New York Times/CBS News poll released Thursday showed that respondents of all parties agree with the major provisions in the legislation, which, after certain enforcement triggers, would also create a temporary worker program and rework legal immigration to weigh education, job skills and English proficiency over family connections to U.S. citizens and legal residents.

But, in a sign of the bill's vulnerability to collapse, two more amendments that would have seriously hampered the plan were barely defeated. They were:

  • A proposal by Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) to phase out a portion of the temporary worker program for low-skilled workers in five years. It was defeated 49-48. Earlier this week, the Senate agreed to cut the number of "Y-visas" under the temporary worker program to 200,000 a year, from an original amount of between 400,000 and 600,000.
  • An amendment by Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) to allow local government authorities to question someone about immigration status if they have probable cause to believe that person was in the U.S. illegally. Coleman said the amendment was aimed to counter local ordinances designating "sanctuary cities," which, he argued, serve as "gag orders" for local law enforcement that prevent authorities from finding and arresting illegal immigrants who go on to commit violent crimes. The proposal was also defeated 49-48.
  • The Senate approved an amendment, introduced by Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.), that increases fees for employers who hire highly skilled, temporary workers with H1-B visas. The money would be used to finance American scholarships in mathematics, engineering, health care and computer science. Sanders has been among the most vocal critics of the temporary worker program, which Republicans and business groups consider essential to filling long-vacant jobs in the country. The amendment passed 59-35.

The Senate plans to resume the debate for at least one more week after it returns to session in June.