Immigration bill lacks Bush's guest worker plan


WASHINGTON -- A key lawmaker unveiled legislation yesterday that underscored the differences between President Bush and many House Republicans over how to fix the nation's troubled immigration system.

Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., a Wisconsin Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said his bill would tighten border security, require all businesses to verify that their employees are in this country legally and increase penalties for those using illegal workers.

The White House supports all those moves. But the measure ignores Bush's repeated call for creating a guest worker program that would temporarily legalize the status of millions of workers in the nation illegally.

Bush has said a guest worker program is the best way to convince illegal workers to step forward while ensuring a steady labor supply for U.S. businesses that rely on them. But a vocal minority of House Republicans opposes any guest worker program as a type of amnesty that they say will encourage more foreign workers to enter the U.S. illegally.

Sensenbrenner said he supports a guest worker program but left it out of his bill because the House could not reach a consensus over the details of such a plan.

The House Republican leadership plans to bring his measure to a vote next week, before Congress recesses for the holidays. It is expected to pass, although many Democrats may vote against it.

The bill's centerpiece is a provision that would require employers to verify the legal status of all employees by checking with the Social Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security by phone or computer. It would expand a voluntary pilot program that has been in place since 1996 that gives employers three days after hiring workers to check their status with those agencies.

Sensenbrenner's bill would require employers to verify the legal status of new hires within two years of the bill's enactment, and of all their workers within six years of the bill's enactment.

"It would end the job magnet" attracting illegal workers to the U.S., said a House Judiciary Committee staff member, who briefed reporters on the bill's provisions on condition of anonymity.

Some analysts saw Sensenbrenner's measure as the first step in a complex White House strategy intended to secure the sort of comprehensive reform Bush is seeking without splitting the party over the politically sensitive issue of immigration.

"This has been in the works for awhile now, that the House would come up with an enforcement-only bill despite the president's expressed desire to do something different," said Tamar Jacoby, an analyst at the conservative Manhattan Institute think tank. "This is the first step in a bigger process."

House Republicans, who have been beset by ethical scandals and disagreements over tax cuts, hurricane reconstruction efforts, deficit spending and other issues, are determined to end the year on an upbeat note, Jacoby said. They hope to do so by rallying around Sensenbrenner's bill, which they expect to play well with constituents alarmed by the nation's failure to control its borders.

Bush's hopes for creating a guest worker program now rest with the Senate, which is expected to take up immigration reform in February.

Several senators have put forward guest worker proposals that they say they would attempt to attach to any legislation beefing up border security.

One plan, put forward by Sens. Jon Cornyn, a Texas Republican, and John Kyl , an Arizona Republican, would require illegal workers to go back to their native countries and apply from there for a job in the United States. It would offer them temporary visas but no path to citizenship.

Another measure, sponsored by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, and John McCain, an Arizona Republican, would allow workers now here who met certain criteria to pay a fine and gain permanent residency.

Randy Johnson, vice president for labor and immigration at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said the group dislikes the requirement in Sensenbrenner's bill that employers verify the citizenship status of their employees through government agencies and the fines that would be imposed on those hiring illegal workers. But he said he is optimistic that the Senate will pass immigration legislation that includes a guest worker program.

"The business community knew that a computer employer verification system was coming down the pike," Johnson said. "However, our view is it should be included as part of a more comprehensive reform legislation which takes on all the issues."

Mary Curtius writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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