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Congress May Act On Immigration

By Michael Coleman
Journal Washington Bureau
Editor's note: Illegal immigration is becoming a political and social flashpoint for the nation. As part of its ongoing series, the Journal today checks in with New Mexico's congressional delegation on the likelihood of immigration reform.
    WASHINGTON— A rising tide of national outrage over failed U.S. immigration policies will finally force some kind of action this session, say several members of New Mexico's congressional delegation.
    "Part of the reason we haven't done anything is that it's a political bombshell," said Rep. Tom Udall, a Democrat, echoing an admission made by other New Mexico congressional leaders. "My constituency and all New Mexicans are very torn on this one."
    Udall and other delegation members agreed in recent interviews that Congress can not afford to ignore the problem any longer. Concerns about terrorism, the economy, border violence and overburdened social services have reached a boiling point.
    "It's getting to where you can't avoid it," said Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M.
    However, Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., said he expects plenty of debate on immigration, but ultimately little action. He said the Republican leadership in Congress, which is itself divided on the issue, is not likely to push any legislation all the way to the president's desk.
    And he admitted that they are not alone in their indecision. "It's a complex issue and people are of two minds," Bingaman said.
    President Bush, a Republican, has said immigration reform will be a focal point of his agenda this fall.
    Currently, two leading proposals are generating a lot of discussion in Congress but very little consensus.
    The first, introduced by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., would create a guest worker program and pave the way to citizenship for otherwise law-abiding illegals who are willing to pay back taxes and a $1,000 fine.
    The McCain-Kennedy bill also would crack down on visa fraud and encourage countries that produce large amounts of illegal immigrants to devise better worker integration programs at home.
    Another major immigration bill, introduced by Republican Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and Jon Kyl of Arizona, also would allow for a guest worker program and would add 10,000 border patrol agents, 1,250 customs officers and about $5 billion for border-related technology.
No bills yet
    So far, New Mexico's leaders in Congress haven't offered immigration legislation or signed on to anyone else's. But Rep. Steve Pearce, a Republican who represents much of the state's border with Mexico, has vowed to do so.
    Pearce, who spent August criss-crossing his district to host public forums on immigration, said he will propose a bill that would allow foreigners to come to the United States as part of a guest worker program, but would prohibit any kind of legal amnesty for those already in the country illegally.
    Pearce said he will base his bill on the feedback he received from constituents during his listening tour.
    "Our constituents— who represented a broad spectrum of ideological viewpoints— repeatedly expressed the view that it should not be illegal for hard-working, honest people to come to the United States to improve their lives, particularly when we need their labor and their skills," Pearce said. "The same widespread consensus exists that a guest worker permit should never become a path to permanent status or citizenship."
    Pearce said that in general he's convinced that foreign nationals should be able to come to America easily for things like work, weddings and funerals, as long as they return home soon after.
    But "for the bad things, the drugs, the human trafficking, it needs to be very unfriendly," Pearce said.
    Domenici has said he will push for a program that would provide illegal immigrants already in the United States with a mechanism to "normalize" their status for a certain period of time, perhaps three to five years.
    The plan would require undocumented workers who have lived in the United States without getting into trouble to declare their presence to the federal government. In exchange, they would receive permission to stay legally in the country for several years.
    Ultimately, Domenici said, the workers would be required to obtain legal status through normal channels or face deportation. Those who do not register with the federal government and get caught might be subject to penalties harsher than those currently on the books, Domenici said.
    The senator acknowledged that his proposal would be decried by some as "amnesty," but he also said it is a realistic approach to identifying illegals without disrupting the U.S. economy, which relies so heavily on the labor of these undocumented workers.
    "If they have good jobs, we have to give them some kind of multi-year work permit that validates their presence here," Domenici said.
Other views
    Rep. Heather Wilson, a Republican, said any immigration proposal should focus on allowing foreigners to come to the United States on a temporary basis to work, but she said she opposes any effort to relax laws for those who have already broken them.
    "I oppose amnesty because I don't think people here illegally should get to go to the front of the line," Wilson said. "But when we have hundreds of thousands of people standing at lines at embassies for the chance to come here and work in this country, laying pavement and picking lettuce in the 120-degree heat, I think we should come up with a system to allow for that."
    Wilson also said border enforcement must be improved, likely with a much more heavy reliance on technology.
    She rejected the notion that America should turn its borders into militarized zones.
    "There are some folks who want to station American troops on the border," she said. "My question to them is what are you going to tell that 19-year-old with an M-16 to do when he sees someone coming across the border?"
    Bingaman said that like most Americans, he dislikes the prospect of granting amnesty to millions of foreigners who are in the United States illegally. But like Domenici, his Republican Senate colleague, he senses there may be no way around it.
    "It's not realistic to say we are just going to start, all of a sudden, sending everybody home who is here on an undocumented basis," Bingaman said. "You've got to find some process for sorting through those who are here and those who have been here for some substantial period. You have to find some way for their legal status to be regularized ... as legal residents or something at some point in the future."