Immigration bill may lose felony provison

GOP leaders say they don’t support legislation’s tough language

WASHINGTON (CNN) — The top Republicans
in both the House and Senate indicated Tuesday they don’t support
language in an immigration bill that would make entering the country
illegally a felony.

The proposal has drawn the ire of pro-immigrant groups that have staged a wave of protests in recent weeks.

The
provision making illegal immigration a felony was contained in an
immigration reform bill passed by the House in December. But in a joint
statement issued Tuesday evening, House Speaker Dennis Hastert of
Illinois and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee both
indicated they wanted the language dropped.

Frist and Hastert
also criticized House Democrats, who, they said, opposed efforts by
Republicans to strip the provision from the bill before it passed.

“Instead, they voted to make felons out of all of those who remain in our country illegally,” their statement said. 

Frist
and Hastert did not specify whether they wanted unlawful presence in
the United States to be a misdemeanor or carry a lesser penalty.

Their
statement was also silent on the question of whether they had come to
any agreement on two issues that have split Republicans — creating a
guest-worker program, or allowing undocumented immigrants in the
country illegally to work their way toward legal status.

The
provision making illegal immigration a felony was part of a bill pushed
by House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin
Republican. It passed the House in December by a vote of 239-182, with
only 36 Democrats supporting the final version of the measure.

Responding
to Tuesday’s criticism of Democrats by Hastert and Frist, Jennifer
Crider, a spokeswoman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of
California, said “no amount of spin can change the fact that
Republicans wrote and passed the Sensenbrenner bill, which criminalizes
an entire population.”

Crider also said Republicans “are feeling
the heat” after demonstrations that brought out hundreds of thousands
of protesters Monday at rallies in at least 140 cities in more than 39
states.

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