Second thoughts on border security measures in Senate

Conservative critics of the Senate’s immigration bill are trying to resurrect Sen. Johnny Isakson’s plan to predicate immigration reforms on federal certification that border-security measures have been implemented.

Isakson (R-Ga.) lost a floor vote on his amendment, 40-55, last month, but he says he now has the votes to support the plan and would like it to be the basis for conference negotiations, which have been forestalled by legislative and parliamentary conflicts.

Several conservatives said yesterday that they are willing to consider a more comprehensive immigration bill if Isakson’s trigger is implemented.

“There are lots of ways to get there, but looking the other way on border security is not” one of them, Isakson said.

But there is disagreement among the conservatives over how best to quash Senate provisions that would allow many of the illegal immigrants already here to become citizens.

Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) wants to the Senate to pass a new bill that deals only with border enforcement, which would give conservative critics of the “path to citizenship” an immigration bill to support and could establish a framework for an enforcement-only conference.

“I urge my colleagues in both the House and Senate to move this bill so we can secure our borders while we work on the remaining issues related to illegal immigration,” Santorum said yesterday.

Many conservatives are steadfastly opposed to provisions that would allow illegal immigrants to become citizens, a component that supporters say they are unwilling to discard.

The battle over the “path to citizenship” demonstrates that, despite softening rhetoric in the Senate in recent days, adversaries in the immigration battle are not ready to give ground.

“It just reflects that they can’t change their minds,” said Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), a chief backer of the Senate-passed bill.

The impasse is producing a series of unusual post-passage field hearings conducted by chairmen on both sides of the issue.

The House, which passed a bill focused solely on border security, will begin hearings next week designed to stoke opposition to the Senate’s guest-worker and citizenship provisions.

“The American people expect us to secure our borders and effectively enforce our immigration laws, and we believe these hearings will help send a stronger bill to President Bush for his signature,” House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said yesterday.

The House International Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on International Terrorism and Nonproliferation will hold hearings in San Diego, Calif., and Laredo, Texas, next week.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) will try to give the Senate bill a boost at his own hearing Wednesday at Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center.

The title of Specter’s hearing is “Comprehensive Immigration Reform: Examining the Need for a Guest Worker Program.”

Conservatives say public support for Isakson’s plan is building and that is having an effect on their colleagues.

“I believe the Senate is reevaluating its position,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).

Border-security measures can be implemented in roughly the same time — about two years — that it would take to get new immigration programs up and running, Isakson said.

Several of the conservatives left room for compromise on a temporary-worker program but declined to consider citizenship for those who have entered the country illegally.

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) said his opposition to citizenship proposals is “not negotiable.”

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), who voted for the Senate bill, said yesterday that he could accept an approach like that envisioned by Isakson but chose not to rule specifics in or out.

“I don’t want to get pinned down on what will be in there,” Frist said.

Like many of his colleagues, Martinez insists there is room for compromise.

“What I want to do is not have any deal-breakers before we sit down to talk,” he said. But, he concluded, “a path to citizenship is a very important part of any bill.”