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Senate Approves Bill That Attacks Illegal Immigration

By William Branigin
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

The Senate overwhelmingly passed an immigration bill Thursday that would reinforce the U.S. Border Patrol, crack down on the smuggling and employment of illegal aliens and impose new restrictions on the ability of legal immigrants to obtain government benefits.

The bill, similar to one passed by the House in March, was approved 97-3 after eight days of debate marked by sharp differences among Republicans over several key issues and skirmishing between Republicans and Democrats over the minimum wage.

Although, in the end, only three Democrats voted against the bill, it immediately came under fire from private groups on both sides of the immigration debate. Advocates of lower immigration levels charged that it had been "diluted" to the point of meaninglessness, while immigration proponents assailed its restrictions on legal immigrants' access to public benefits as "mean-spirited."

Like its House counterpart, the Senate bill emerged from the legislative process without its original provisions aimed at reducing the number of legal immigrants. The bill's sponsor, Sen. Alan K. Simpson, R-Wyo., attempted on the Senate floor to insert what he described as modest cuts in the annual visa levels for legal immigration, but he was soundly rebuffed in a move led by freshman Republican Spencer Abraham (Mich.) to keep legal immigration visa numbers in a separate bill, effectively shelving the issue for the time being.

President Clinton welcomed the bill as an endorsement of his administration's "comprehensive immigration strategy," which he said had already made "historic progress" in cracking down on illegal immigrants at the border and the workplace. But he said the bill "goes too far in denying legal immigrants access to vital safety net programs which would jeopardize public health and safety."

In a floor speech, Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole, R-Kans., his party's presumptive presidential candidate, hailed the bill as a "long overdue" effort to balance the U.S. heritage as a nation of immigrants with tougher enforcement of American "sovereignty" on the nation's borders.

"We cannot remain a great country and fail to control our borders," Dole said. He said the bill's provisions provide "for first time a realistic hope that our Border Patrol can cope with illegal immigration."

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., forecast a tough fight in a congressional conference over an amendment in the House version that allows states to deny free public education to illegal immigrant children. Such a provision, which Kennedy said he strongly opposes, was never offered in the Senate and could trigger a veto if it reaches President Clinton.

Kennedy said the most important parts of the bill were those aimed at shutting off the "job magnet" for illegal immigrants by setting up pilot programs to verify the employment eligibility of job seekers and by cracking down on document fraud. "The job is the magnet, and document fraud is how the illegals circumvent the law," Kennedy said in a telephone interview.

The bill would nearly double the strength of the Border Patrol, an arm of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), by adding 4,700 new agents over the next five years. It would also add 600 INS investigators to crack down on alien smuggling, illegal employment and visa overstays.

Foreigners who enter the United States legally, but then overstay their visas, account for as many as half the country's roughly 4 million illegal immigrants, a population estimated to be increasing by about 300,000 a year, according to INS estimates.

The bill would increase detention space for illegal aliens to at least 9,000 beds by September 1997 and add 700 Labor Department investigators over the next two years to enforce labor standards in areas with large illegal immigrant populations.

In a close vote, the senators approved the creation of pilot projects aimed at developing a system to verify eligibility for employment and public assistance, and agreed to federal standards for birth certificates and state drivers' licenses to reduce document fraud. Conservative Republicans had charged that the verification system would lead to creation of a "national ID card," although this was expressly ruled out in the bill.