July 10, 2009
by Cam Simpson
WASHINGTON -- A series of Senate floor votes this week seeking to toughen immigration enforcement is giving the Obama administration its first real taste of the chilly climate for overhauling immigration laws.
On Thursday, the Senate approved a measure that would effectively overturn an immigration-enforcement decision announced one day earlier by the Obama administration. The Department of Homeland Security had said Wednesday that it would rescind a Bush administration program aimed at forcing employers to fire workers who are unable to resolve discrepancies in their Social Security records.
But the Senate approved an amendment to the annual Department of Homeland Security DHS spending bill prohibiting the department from changing the program, commonly known as the no-match rule. The amendment is one of several immigration-enforcement provisions the Senate attached this week to the $42.9 billion DHS budget for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1.
The series of amendments was introduced by Republican opponents of immigration reform, and gained critical support from about 10 Democrats. The no-match program is intended to make it harder for illegal immigrants to hold jobs gained by using fake Social Security numbers. Critics have said it could also unfairly target U.S. citizens who were the victims of bureaucratic bungling by the Social Security Administration or the Department of Homeland Security DHS.
Even before the Obama administration said it would rescind the no-match rule, which is unpopular with many business groups, it had been blocked by a federal court.
The Obama administration also said Wednesday that it would fully implement a Bush administration initiative that would require federal contractors and subcontractors to use an electronic government program aimed at keeping them from hiring illegal workers. It is expected to affect more than 170,000 employers.
But that wasn't tough enough for Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Alabama Republican who has spearheaded efforts against immigration overhauls in recent years. Sen. Sessions won passage of an amendment after the Obama announcement Wednesday that would make the program, known as E-Verify, permanent and mandatory, removing any White House discretion to end it. Before the amendment passed, Sen. Sessions won support on a key procedural vote from 10 Democrats and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who caucuses with the Democrats.
Another amendment approved this week would mandate construction of a physical fence along about 700 miles of the border with Mexico, instead of existing vehicle barriers or plans for a high-tech "virtual" fence. The amended bill still must pass the Senate before being reconciled with the House version.
Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, said GOP opponents of immigration reform "are definitely trying to exact their pound of flesh right now, at a time when Democrats want to maintain an appearance of being strong on immigration enforcement."
Democrats and some Republicans who favor an overhaul hope to craft a single legislative package with strong immigration enforcement provisions and a path to legalization for the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S.
Mr. Obama has said he wants to see the effort get under way soon. Sen. Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat, is leading the effort for Democrats and, said this week that he will have a draft bill by the end of the summer.
Although he opposed some of the Republican moves, Sen. Schumer said Thursday that most of the provisions wouldn't hurt the larger reform push. "What will make or break overall reform will be the big issues," he said, dismissing the amendments as "little things."
DHS spokesman Matt Chandler criticized the amendments, saying they "are designed to prevent real progress on immigration enforcement and are a reflection of the old administration's strategy: all show, no substance."
Frank Sherry, who heads America's Voice, an advocacy group for an immigration overhaul, said support remains for a comprehensive package in Congress, but the key is to keep enforcement and legalization together.
James Carafano, of the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, said this week's votes show little has changed in recent years, which have seen Sen. Sessions and other Republicans repeatedly shoot down efforts to revamp the U.S. immigration system.
"I don't think the politics of this has changed at all, except maybe to get more polarized," Mr. Carafano said.http://online.wsj.com/article_email/SB124718283357420277-lMyQjAxMDI5NDE3MDExODAyWj.html