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'Toughest Ever' Immigration Bill Passes Congress, Awaits Clinton

By William Branigin
The Washington Post
WASHINGTON

After protracted infighting among Republicans and intensive last-minute wrangling between congressional Republicans and the White House, Congress Monday sent to the president an immigration bill that attempts to clamp off the influx of illegal aliens but stops short of significant changes on legal immigration and access to federal benefits.

The legislation, hailed by backers as the toughest bill to control illegal immigration in a generation, is intended to respond to a public backlash against America's growing population of illegal residents. With more than 4 million illegal immigrants in the United States and an estimated 300,000 unauthorized newcomers joining them annually, a political consensus has emerged on the need to restrict that flow, although bitter divisions remain on the costs and benefits of legal immigration.

The bill is aimed at beefing up the Border Patrol along the 2,000-mile frontier with Mexico, toughening penalties for alien-smuggling and document fraud, expediting the removal of criminal aliens and phony asylum seekers, holding the sponsors of legal immigrants accountable for people they bring in, and initiating pilot programs to weed out illegal aliens from work places.

President Clinton, having threatened to veto an earlier version of the bill, is expected to sign the measure as part of a major appropriations package.

Republicans and Democrats generally lauded the immigration legislation, seeking to put the best face on the concessions that each side was obliged to make to get a bill through by the end of the Senate's session Monday. But the result left Democrats complaining that some provisions still treat newcomers, especially refugees, too harshly, while coddling employers who hire illegal workers. And Republicans charged that the bill fails to curb what they say is continuing misuse of federal and state programs. Both sides vowed to try again next year.

The bill had cleared the House last week 305 to 123 following an agreement by Republicans to delete its most controversial provision, an amendment allowing states to end free public education for illegal immigrant children. But the bill bogged down in the Senate when the White House, prodded by Senate Democrats and various interest groups, objected to other key provisions that had been overshadowed by the education amendment.