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Capitol Hill Immigration Talks Stalled

August 17, 2006
After a spring highlighted by massive immigrant demonstrations and a tortuous Senate debate culminating in approval of comprehensive immigration reform, the summer has been a time for reflection—or political stalemate, depending on who is doing the analysis.

    Before getting to work hammering out the differences between House and Senate immigration bills, House Republicans launched a series of hearings designed to examine the Senate measure.

    Most conservatives oppose the Senate version because it includes a guest worker program and a path toward naturalization for the majority of the estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants in the country, which they label "amnesty." The House bill, passed late last year, focuses solely on border security and workplace enforcement.

    During the August congressional recess, nine House committees were scheduled to hold 21 hearings in 13 states, including one on employment verification.

    Critics call the hearings a political ploy to prevent a bill from being finalized before Congress adjourns in late September, setting up immigration as an election issue. Conservatives believe their position will prevail at the polls. Tactics aside, the political tension has lengthened the odds for an agreement.

    Although House leaders refer to the Senate measure as the "Reid-Kennedy bill" to prick up conservative ears by using the names of two prominent Democrats, they say they are elevating the debate. Nevertheless, three Republicans were among the primary architects of the Senate bill—Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Mel Martinez of Florida and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. President Bush generally supports the comprehensive Senate approach.

    In an attempt to break the congressional impasse, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and Rep. Mike Pence, R-Indiana, have introduced a plan to establish a temporary visa program for Mexican and Central American workers after border security benchmarks are achieved.

    Illegal immigrants would have to return to their country of origin and apply for U.S. jobs through "Ellis Island Centers" run by private U.S. staffing companies. After 17 years in the country, they could begin the process for permanent residency. The Hutchison-Pence plan does not increase the number of green cards offered annually, a key goal of businesses that say they suffer from a dearth of workers.

    Pence says the House and Senate bills can be reconciled this fall.

    As Capitol Hill shifts into neutral on immigration, state legislatures have gone into overdrive. Since the beginning of the year, at least 57 immigration bills have been enacted around the country regarding such issues as employment, benefits, education, identification and law enforcement, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Workforce Management, August 14, 2006, p. 26 -- Subscribe Now!