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House Approves Tough Bill To Penalize Illegal Aliens

By Marc Lacey
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

The House overwhelmingly approved a tough crackdown on illegal immigration Thursday night, but struck from the bill a series of new restrictions on the number and type of legal immigrants allowed in the country and rejected the admittance of 250,000 foreign agricultural workers.

The bill, on a vote of 333-87, would further restrict public benefits for illegal immigrants, increase penalties for smugglers and document counterfeiters, and boost border enforcement by adding 5,000 more agents and 14 miles of triple fencing near San Diego.

The most contentious aspects of the legislation would allow states the option of denying free public schooling to undocumented students, would increase cooperation between local law enforcement officials and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and would permanently ban those who violate immigration laws from ever legally entering the country.

Although most legal immigration restrictions were removed, the bill would still cut public benefits for legal immigrants and make their sponsors financially responsible for their well-being.

"Americans got the whole loaf on illegal immigration reform and half the loaf on legal immigration reform," said Rep. Lamar S. Smith, R-Texas, putting the best face on the breakup of the bill he sponsored. "Three-fourths of a loaf tastes pretty good."

The bill pleases neither immigrant rights groups nor strong foes of illegal immigrants. The hard-line Federation for American Immigration Reform announced its opposition to the bill Thursday after lawmakers stripped legal immigration reform and weakened worker verification provisions.

"Despite a variety of high-minded sounding attempts to reform immigration policy, Congress - with the full support of a do-nothing administration - is on its way to passing another bill that may only make things worse," said Dan Stein, executive director of FAIR.

In a last-minute change, lawmakers eliminated the proposed 30 percent cuts in the number of legal immigrants and rejected a plan to disallow siblings and adult children of U.S. citizens from receiving family visas.

The move to excise legal immigration reform from the bill was a blow to those who argued that foreign workers were reducing wages and taking jobs from U.S. citizens. The reform was also aimed at reducing the huge backlog of immigrants seeking to join family members here by eliminating adult children and siblings from the eligibility list.

"In a country of 260 million people, 700,000 legal immigrants (a year) is not an exorbitant amount," said Rep. Dick Chrysler, D-Mich., who argued for deleting many of the proposed changes in legal immigration. "We are all immigrants or descendants of immigrants."

He was aided by a bipartisan coalition of groups, ranging from labor unions to the Christian Coalition. The 238-183 vote to retain current immigration levels - now capped at roughly 700,000 people per year - cut deeply across partisan lines.

The elimination of legal immigration reform from the bill decreases significantly the chances that the House will address the issue this year. Already, the Senate Judiciary Committee has voted to consider legal and illegal immigration in two separate bills. The Senate is expected to approve a similar illegal immigration bill next month.

On illegal immigration, the House bill aims to tighten security at the border but acknowledges that some people will still elude the new agents and barriers there.

Other provisions would make it more difficult for illegal immigrants to find work and receive government benefits. And deportation procedures would be streamlined to remove the undocumented, especially those who committed crimes.

The bill would reduce the 30-odd identification documents that immigrants can now present to employers to just six. And it would treat those who forge immigration papers like counterfeiters of U.S. currency.

The legislation calls for a pilot program that would allow participating employers to check the immigration status of new hires in a government database. To defuse opposition from businesses and civil libertarians who call it intrusive, the program is voluntary.

The bill would forbid undocumented parents from receiving government benefits even if their children are U.S. citizens, a provision critics called "anti-child." Current law forbids illegal immigrants from receiving benefits for themselves but allows parents to receive the benefits for citizen children.