Decision 2006: Whatever Happened To Bush's Big Immigration Plan?

Bill falls victim to election-year politics.

Remember earlier this year, when tens of thousands of people took to the streets to demand passage of an immigration bill, and President Bush said in a prime-time address that it was one of his top priorities?

Well, hold onto those memories, because for now, they're probably all we're going to get out of this Congress. And, according to a leading member of the House, they may be all the substantive action we'll see on immigration reform until Bush leaves office in two years — despite the president's support of a Senate bill that would create a path to citizenship for some illegal aliens (see "Senate Passes Sweeping Immigration-Reform Package" and "Senate Backs Border Fence, Citizenship Chance For Illegal Immigrants").

So, what happened?

If you ask Democrats, they'll tell you it's just the usual election-year chest-puffing, smoke and mirrors. Ask Republicans, and they'll say they've listened to their constituents and what they've heard is concern about border security.

"Political band-aids are being pushed through before the session ends that are blatantly there to provide a political cover so [Congressional Republicans] can go back to their tough [election] races and say they did something," said Laura Capps, communications director for Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy. "There was a real chance for reform, and even though Republicans control the House and Senate and the president was in favor of the bill, they couldn't get it through" (see "House Stalls Immigration Reform; Compromise Bill Not Likely Before November Elections").

The "band-aid" Capps mentioned is a House measure approved for a second time last week that calls for a 700-mile long fence to be erected along the 2,000-mile-long U.S.-Mexican border; the border currently has 75 miles of fencing. At press time, though, the estimated $2-$7 billion needed to build the massive fence had not been appropriated in the bill, leading Democrats to charge that it was an empty election-year gesture.

The House first passed the fence provision in December, as part of a larger bill that would have made it a felony to live in the U.S. illegally and did not address citizenship for current illegal aliens.

With the more comprehensive immigration bill stalled, House Republicans decided to strip out parts of the bill that might play well with their conservative base — i.e., border security as a part of national security — and focus on passing the fence aspect, a move Senate Republicans followed on Wednesday.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said Wednesday that the fence proposal was the best alternative if lawmakers wanted to salvage any part of the immigration changes before the election, according to The New York Times.

"Border security is the essential first step of any effort to enact immigration reform," he said earlier in the week, adding on Wednesday, "Let's focus on a problem the American people understand, and that is: We have hundreds of thousands of people coming across our border every year into our country." Frist said the bigger changes could be considered when Congress reconvenes in mid-November, or possibly in the new year.

The Senate voted 94-0 on Wednesday to debate the fence measure, while the House voted 228 to 196 to require voters to show proof of citizenship, which Republicans said would limit illegal immigrants' ability to vote. The Times said some Democrats criticized the move as a modern version of the poll tax, which could discourage minorities and older Americans from voting.

"The issue at hand is indeed a matter of security, but there are also other angles that must be addressed, like economic issues and family unity," Republican Senator John McCain told MTV News in an e-mail. "Only addressing the security aspect of immigration may not be enough."

Those "other issues," which include the path to citizenship favored by Bush and the Senate, are not likely to make it onto the docket in the waning days of this Congressional session, which ends in less than 10 days and doesn't pick up again until mid-November. Current plans call for a vote on some aspect of immigration reform in the Senate early next week.

Courtney Boone, a committee aide to the Senate Judiciary Committee and to Republican Senator Arlen Specter — the Judiciary Committee chair who penned the Senate bill — said Specter believes in a comprehensive immigration bill, but feels it cannot leave out a measure for border fencing. "He hasn't said what his timetable is," Boone said. "But he believes a comprehensive bill would involve the House and Senate going to conference [to work out their differences] and no conferees have even been appointed yet."

One Republican House member who doesn't mince words about security being a priority is Iowa's Steve King, who said he went so far as to build a wooden model of his design for a double-layered concrete wall and razor-wire border fence that he demonstrated on the House floor. "I didn't think we'd get any legislation through going into last weekend," King said. "But Senator Frist saying he would bring up the House version in the Senate is hugely significant. Democrats say this is demagoguing and posturing and we're not serious about building this fence, but Americans are serious and I think a fence bill will be on the president's desk before the elections."

Given the administration's weak record on border enforcement, King said he's not interested in discussing a guest-worker program or comprehensive immigration legislation before Bush's term is over, and there is a "three-to-five-year track record of effective enforcement.

"I have supported this enforcement approach because it's good policy and the American people support it because it's good policy," King said. "The destiny of America hangs in the balance."