Senate guest worker plan survives attack, Boxer, Alabama Republican fails to kill provision, but number of visas is reduced

Via The San Fransisco Chronical
By Carolyn Lochhead, Chronicle Washington Bureau


Washington

Seldom do California’s liberal Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer and Alabama’s
conservative Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions agree on anything. But they joined
Tuesday in a failed attempt to kill the guest worker provision of the Senate’s
broad overhaul of U.S. immigration law, calling it a threat to U.S. workers.

Their 69-28 defeat — one of a sequence of amendment battles that
backers of the Senate bill won handily — demonstrated a powerful momentum
behind the underlying legislation. Senators on both sides said President Bush’s
push for the bill in a prime-time speech Monday night, in which he called for
National Guard troops at the Mexican border, had aided its prospects.

But even if the Senate bill passes, it faces a difficult future. The House
passed a border enforcement bill, and conservative Republicans show little sign
of bending to Bush’s will on an issue that has riled GOP voters across the
country. The bills would have to be merged and House leaders persuaded in an
election year to embrace Senate provisions creating a program to allow legal
residence and citizenship for illegal immigrants now in the country — an
idea they have rejected repeatedly as tantamount to amnesty.

The emotional Senate debate Tuesday threw a spotlight on the deep
fractures the immigration issue opens in both parties, the strange and fragile
alliances it forges and the conundrums posed by any attempt to control the flow
of human beings over national boundaries.

Those alliances included the call by Boxer and Sessions to kill a proposed
guest worker program that would provide temporary visas for future immigrants
with jobs in the United States.

“There are 3.6 million workers in construction with an average wage of
$18.21,” Boxer said. “I meet with my working people in California. They’re
fighting hard for these jobs, they want more of these jobs, not less of these
jobs, and the last thing they want is a guest worker program that is going to
provide a big pool of workers who will get far less than this amount and take
jobs away from my people.”

“There is nothing temporary about this guest worker program,” agreed
Sessions, saying the bill offers new migrants — as well as most of the
estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country — a path to
citizenship, leading to extraordinary new numbers of blue-collar migrants.

Several senators on both sides of the aisle — including Dianne
Feinstein, a California Democrat who voted for the immigration bill in the
Judiciary Committee — cited a new analysis released Monday by the
conservative Heritage Foundation that predicted far more people immigrating
into the country than anticipated as a result of the Senate’s legislation.

Feinstein and Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., prevailed 79-18 on an amendment to
reduce the number of low-skill guest worker visas from 325,000 a year to
200,000 and to remove an automatic escalator that would have increased the
low-skill visas by 20 percent each year that the ceiling was reached.

The Heritage analysis added up all the provisions of the 616-page Senate
bill and extended them over 20 years, producing a mid-range estimate of more
than 100 million new legal immigrants — a third of the current U.S.
population — if the guest worker programs grow at 10 percent a year and
workers bring their families as currently allowed.

“It all adds up to millions and millions of people,” Feinstein said.

In addition to a new guest worker program for unskilled immigrants, the
overall bill would provide a path to earned citizenship for those immigrants
who entered the illegally country before January 2004, toughen border
enforcement, impose new sanctions on employers who hire illegal immigrants,
provide a separate program for 1.5 million farm workers and expand visas for
high-skilled migrants.

Guest worker provisions include not only the visa program for low-skill
workers but also an expansion of H1B visas for high-skill workers, many of whom
are employed in Silicon Valley. The H1B visa is the primary U.S. work permit, a
nonimmigrant classification used by a foreign worker who will be employed
temporarily in a specialty occupation.

“We did not realize the extent to which large numbers of people are
brought in on some of these visas,” Feinstein said, noting that the Judiciary
Committee took its earlier action under a strict deadline to produce a bill.

Feinstein said she would like to eliminate the 20 percent escalator in the
H1B skilled visa category as well.

“It’s simply too many,” Feinstein said, adding the H1B category — which
has stirred controversy among U.S.-born engineers — could generate 3.67
million foreign workers over the next 10 years.

The proposed H1B expansion from 65,000 visas to 115,000, with the 20
percent escalator each year the ceiling is breached, is eagerly sought by
computer makers who contend that educated foreigners are an asset to the
industry and vital to maintaining the U.S. technological lead. It has stirred
opposition among native-born engineers who contend that foreign tech workers
have undermined salaries and discouraged U.S. children from entering tech
fields.

Supporters of the bill, including its chief sponsors Sen. Edward Kennedy,
D-Mass., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., countered that the bill contains
protections for U.S. workers and immigrants alike, including requirements that
employers search for U.S. workers first and pay prevailing wages.

The first critical test vote after Bush’s speech came Tuesday when the
Senate defeated an amendment by Sen. Johnny Isakson, D-Ga., that would have
required the administration to certify that the borders were secure before
legal immigration could be expanded. The amendment, which would have brought
down the entire bill, lost 40-55 when 17 Republicans joined 38 Democrats to
defeat it.

The vote “was a good sign that we’ve got a majority coalition to hold
together on it,” said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., a key conservative backer of
the legislation. He said Bush’s call Monday to send 6,000 National Guard troops
to the border helped undermine a key conservative objection.

“A number of people have been calling for National Guard troops on the
border for some time,” Brownback said. “So he said, fine, he’ll do it. I think
it helped on that.”

Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., another chief sponsor, said he was nervous
before the vote on Isakson’s amendment because it was “the toughest for most
people. I think (support) will grow from here.”

The Senate, continuing to work through several dozen amendments, is set to
vote on passage by Memorial Day.

Some members speculate privately that the difficulty of melding any Senate
call for broader legal immigration with the House enforcement crackdown,
combined with Bush’s political weakness, could delay a conference committee
until after the election — and possibly kill the bill entirely.

Yet the progress of the legislation has been eerily similar to the
struggle over the last major immigration overhaul 20 years ago, where a fragile
coalition of business and ethnic lobbies cobbled together legislation that
skirted defeat several times.

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