WASHINGTON -- The Senate voted overwhelmingly yesterday to toughen the country's immigration laws to stymie those attempting to illegally enter the United States, and to make earning a living difficult for those who have already arrived.
The bill would nearly double the number of Border Patrol agents, better equip the agents and put up miles of fencing and other barriers.
For those who do manage to enter illegally, the legislation would crack down on the fraudulent documents that allow many illegal immigrants to work and would sharply curb the distribution of federal benefits -- from welfare to student financial aid.
Smugglers would face far tougher penalties under the legislation, as would those who engage in the multimillion-dollar business of manufacturing fake driver's licenses, birth certificates and other identification cards. The bill also calls for more detention facilities for those caught in the country illegally, and streamlined deportation procedures to remove them more quickly.
Senators struck from the bill most of the provisions affecting legal immigrants, including sharp cuts in immigration numbers. But the bill would sharply limit federal benefits for noncitizens and would hold legal immigrants' sponsors financially responsible for those they bring into the country.
"We have brought forth significant changes in legal and illegal immigration that are rather sweeping," said Sen. Alan K. Simpson, a Wyoming Republican and the chief sponsor of the bill. "This issue is about America, and America is about conflict and resolution. It's about these things that pull and tear at us."
The Senate's 97-3 vote, coming six weeks after House passage of a similar crackdown, means the most far-reaching immigration reform in a decade could be in place by summer.
President Clinton is expected to sign the bill, but the White House has expressed concerns with some provisions in both the House and Senate bills, and is pressing for reforms during conference.
"While this bill strongly supports our enforcement efforts, it still goes too far in denying legal immigrants access to vital safety net programs which could jeopardize public health and safety," Mr. Clinton said in a statement. "Some work still needs to be done. I urge Congress to move quickly to finalize and send me this key legislation."
The Senate legislation -- arrived at after nearly 52 hours of debate spread over eight days -- differs from the House version in one significant respect: It lacks a provision sponsored by Rep. Elton Gallegly, a California Republican, that would give states the right to ban public schooling for illegal immigrant children.
Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole endorsed the concept while campaigning in California, but the Kansas Republican and other GOP leaders opted to leave the controversial measure out.
The White House has said that including the schooling ban in the final legislation would bring on a veto.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy characterized the final bill as a solid compromise.
"I can go out and list a whole series of things I don't like about the bill, but you have to look at whether in the bottom line this is going to make a difference on illegal immigration and American jobs, and I think it will," the Massachusetts Democrat said.
Opposing the bill were three Democrats: Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin, Paul Simon of Illinois and Bob Graham of Florida.
The general approach the Senate approved is the same the government is currently employing -- focusing on the border and the workplace.
The legislation calls for the hiring of 1,000 new Border Patrol agents over each of the next four fiscal years, which would substantially increase the current 5,100-person force. It would also equip them with state-of-the-art technology.
The bill also calls for the construction of triple fencing along portions of a 14-mile stretch of the California-Mexico border.
In the workplace, the bill would set up a series of pilot programs in which employers could tap into a government database to verify the immigration status of new hires. This initiative is vehemently opposed by some critics fearful that it is a dangerous step toward a Big Brother-style society.
Pub Date: 5/03/96