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Amnesty compromise

Politics | Lone congressman proposes a way through the immigration impasse

Issue: "Houses divided," June 3, 2006

Indiana Republican Mike Pence takes issue with critics who call his conservative views on immigration policy insincere. As the grandson of an immigrant from Tubbercurry, Ireland, he says he empathizes with the immigrants' plight.

Coincidentally, so does Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), whose grandfather was Italian. And Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) has them both beat: He is himself Cuban, immigrating to the United States as a child.

The House has passed Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner's border-security-first bill, which makes illegal immigration to the United States a felony; Rep. Tancredo, head of the House Immigration Reform Caucus, supports that legislation. The Senate spent last week debating and finalizing Sen. Martinez's Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act (CIRA), which Rep. Tancredo calls an "amnesty" plan. Into that mix, Rep. Pence on May 23 unveiled a new reform plan that stakes out a "middle ground" between the Senate and House proposals.

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The Martinez plan amounts to "amnesty," according to Mr. Pence, who disagrees on nearly everything except that point with Rep. Tancredo, head of the House Immigration Reform Caucus and a supporter of legislation that makes illegally immigrating to the United States a felony (à la the Sensenbrenner plan).

Mr. Pence's bill, called the Border Integrity and Immigration Reform Act, is "tough on border security and tough on employers who hire illegal aliens," he told reporters, "but recognizes the need for a guest-worker program that operates without amnesty and without growing into a huge new bureaucracy." The bill takes the border security plan laid out in the House's only legislation passed on this issue-the Sensenbrenner bill-drops the controversial felony provision, and adds a guest-worker program run by the free market.

Mr. Pence explains that in his bill illegal immigrants must leave the country and, moreover, actually will; the State Department only will issue visas (called "W visas" because of fortuitous bill drafting) to immigrants outside the United States. Private worker-placement agencies called "Ellis Island Centers" will then put guest workers in jobs reported to them by U.S. employers. This leaves little incentive to hire illegals, whose employment would carry a fine, over guest workers.

The Pence bill breaks a six-month dry spell in the House, where disagreement has made most legislators content simply to criticize the efforts of the president and the Senate. Still, it does not ensure any measure of support. The congressman said his bill presents an "attractive alternative" to the current House and Senate bills, and although some House members have praised the proposal, opponents like Rep. Tancredo have not wasted any time attacking it.

This is where the fighting Irish comes out in the white-haired, rosy-cheeked Mr. Pence. "Is all of this pie-in-the-sky? Only if you don't believe in the private market of American business," he says. "The Senate will end up passing some sort of amnesty. The House has a border-security-first bill. Mine harmonizes the two. It asks for compromise."

Forcing illegals to exit the country and creating a market-controlled guest-worker program is how Rep. Pence's plan counters the amnesty that critics say the Senate bill grants. The Senate bill divides immigrants into three tiers based on the number of years they have been in the United States.

Those here at least two years-85 percent of immigrants-would have the eventual right to citizenship. That amnesty, combined with CIRA's proposed increases in legal immigration numbers, would result in "the most dramatic change in immigration law in 80 years,"according to Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation, with as many as 193 million new immigrants in the next 20 years.

Besides President Bush's blessing, backers of the Senate plan say they have the votes to pass the bill. Members of both chambers have to reconcile differences eventually, and Mr. Pence anticipates revisions to his plan if it's not killed.

Mostly, though, Republicans in the Senate are urging the House to get through this impasse; not to do so before the November mid-term elections would be politically disastrous. Because of members whose allegiance is to more than their party, it may be possible to empathize with Congress over the job that lies ahead.

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