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Congress Split on Approach to Immigration

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

As we've just heard, the next step for the Senate's immigration bill is a conference committee. There members of the Senate will try to negotiate a compromise with House members, who passed a vastly different immigration bill last December. Finding middle ground will be no easy task.

We're joined now by NPR's Jennifer Ludden. Jennifer, remind us about the House bill. What's the difference there?

JENNIFER LUDDEN reporting:

Well, the main differences are that the Senate bill has a lot of items that are not in the House bill and probably the most contentious one of those is what critics call amnesty, what the Senate calls earned legalization for the 11 to 12 million immigrants who are in the country now.

NORRIS: Right, they don't use the A word.

LUDDEN: They don't use the A word. And the House says, well, you're not fooling us. This is a bright red line for some members of the House. They insist there's no way they're going to vote for this. Doesn't matter if they have to pay a fine, pay taxes, learn English, they claim they have public opinion on their side and this is where they draw the line.

It's also the same issue that a number of senators have said is crucial. That if you don't give these immigrants a chance to, you know, become citizens eventually down the road, you're going to create this subclass and ethnic tensions like we see in Europe. Some of them were talking about that. So this is probably going to be the toughest hurdle in the conference committee.

NORRIS: Now, one other thing that's actually missing from the House legislation, a guest worker program.

LUDDEN: That's right. I've heard a number of representatives say they don't oppose this in principle and they could consider it if they feel there's enough security along the Mexico border. But, again, the Senate bill would give these guest workers a path to eventual citizenship and many in the House say no, they'd approve a temporary program as President Bush has spoken about repeatedly. So, you're going to have the same debate there about what is the long term role of these workers in our society.

NORRIS: What are the other key differences?

LUDDEN: Well, the House bill does also not call for an increase in legal immigration and there's quite a substantial one in the Senate bill. It hasn't got as much of the debate, but it more than doubles the number of employment based visas. It would increase the number of family members of U.S. citizens that could come every year. There's nothing for that in the House. Also there's this controversial part of the House bill that would make unlawful presence in the U.S. a felony.

Now, there is probably some room for compromise there because some key House members have said they're open to reducing that to a misdemeanor charge. And I think it's worth noting, that is something already in the Senate bill. It too would make it a criminal misdemeanor for those who enter the country illegally, although not for those who came with a Visa and then overstayed. The House bill would make those also criminalized.

NORRIS: And what about the issue of the wall or the fence or whatever they call it? The issue we just heard about in David Welna's piece.

LUDDEN: Double what's in the Senate bill, 700 miles of fencing in the House bill versus about 350 miles in the Senate.

NORRIS: Overall it doesn't sound like someone would want to place a bet on the two sides finding a compromise there.

LUDDEN: No. Don't put your money at risk here. I think that, you know, if you look at it, the only thing both sides really agree on is border security. Everyone says we've got to get tougher on the border. And there are many, many measures in each bill to do that.

So, you kind of have to wonder if in the end is this what it's going to come down to? You know, are they going to defy the White House and the Senate Majority Leader who have insisted that we need, you know, all sides to this, and maybe come out to the choice between an enforcement only bill or nothing.

And if that happens, it's going to be tough. Because for Democrats, that don't want to be seen to be weak on security, but they do believe, many of them, that it's a terrible idea to only crackdown on the border and on employers without giving some legal way for millions of low wage workers to be here. They'd rather pass nothing. For Republicans if you pass nothing, it's another failure for President Bush and a Republican dominated Congress.

NORRIS: Who are likely to be the key players in this conference?

LUDDEN: We don't know all of them. We do know that on the Senate side there are really people from both sides of this. There are staunch, some of the most outspoken supporters of legalization, Republicans as well as Democrats. And there are Republicans very heatedly opposed to legalization. It's going to be, you've already got just one side of the conference there that's debating among itself.

NORRIS: Sounds like a scrum. Thank you, Jennifer.

LUDDEN: Thank you.

NORRIS: NPR's Jennifer Ludden. And there's a comparison of the House and the Senate bill at our website. You can find that at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.