WASHINGTON – Republican leaders in the House and the Senate called Tuesday for removing a provision in the House-passed immigration bill that would make it a felony for a foreign national to be in the United States without a valid visa, and blamed Democrats for the inclusion of the controversial language.
The written statement from House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee did not represent a change in position for the Republican leadership, which supports making the offense a misdemeanor.
Democrats “voted to make felons out of all of those who remain in our country illegally,” the leaders wrote. “It remains our intent to produce a strong border security bill that will not make unlawful presence in the United States a felony.”
The GOP leaders issued the statement in the face of intense opposition in the Hispanic community over the tougher penalty – among the most controversial parts of legislation designed to curb illegal immigration and make it more difficult for undocumented workers to live in the U.S.
The felony provision was a focus of massive nationwide protests against the House bill, beginning late in March in Los Angeles and continuing through this week.
At a time of intense Republican sensitivity on immigration-related matters, the statement represented an attempt to deflect at least some public criticism of the House bill onto Democrats.
“Both leaderships want to make it clear that Democrats are the problem and what the outcome will be as part of a broad and balanced border security bill once (Democratic leader) Sen. (Harry) Reid allows a fair process and we go to conference,” said Eric Ueland, Frist’s chief of staff.
At issue is a bill passed by the House last December aimed at strengthening border security and cracking down on smugglers. The bill, drafted by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., R-Wis., the House Judiciary Committee chairman, would make it a felony for a foreign national to be in the United States without a visa.
However, before the House approved the legislation, Sensenbrenner offered an amendment that would have reduced the infraction from a felony to a misdemeanor. At the time, he explained he was making the change at the request of the Bush administration to ease court procedures: A felony would require a grand jury indictment and a jury trial and give the defendant the right to a public defender, but a misdemeanor would not.
The amendment failed, with 164 votes supporting it and 257 opposed. Of those voting against it, 191 were Democrats and 65 were Republicans.
Democrats say they voted against the Sensenbrenner amendment for strategic reasons.
“From a strategic point of view, Democrats were not going to help Republicans pass the bad Sensenbrenner bill,” said Jennifer Crider, spokeswoman for House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. “With the felony provision in there, it is a poison pill, as we’ve seen from all the rallies around the country.”
Crider noted that Republicans are the majority party in the House, and if they truly wanted to change the House bill, they could have.