Immigration Bill

Senate OKs get-tough immigration bill

May 2, 1996
Web posted at: 10:30 p.m. EDT

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Senate voted overwhelmingly Thursday to approve legislation aimed at getting tough on illegal immigrants. The House passed a similar bill in March.


Senators argued for days over which immigrants deserve to enter the United States, and which should get federal assistance. "You ought not to be able to come to America as an immigrant to go on welfare," said Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas.

As the nation's purse strings are drawn tighter, the gateway to 21st century America is contracting as well. Like its House counterpart, the Senate bill, approved 97-3, would double the border patrol, adding 5,000 guards over the next five years, and toughen penalties for people who forge documents, smuggle illegal immigrants, and overstay their visas.

Both bills also include pilot programs to verify that immigrant employees are in the United States legally.


California's Sen. Diane Feinstein says her state desperately needs the help. "If they submit a counterfeit document to an employer, the employer has little choice other than to accept it," she said.

Both bills aim to take immigrants off the public dole by requiring sponsors to take full financial responsibility for immigrants they bring into the United States.

Illegal immigrants

The most controversial difference in the two versions: The House would allow states to deny public education to youngsters who are illegal immigrants. The education restriction is not in the Senate bill, and the White House says it's veto bait.

The Senate version would repeal part of the anti-terrorism bill President Clinton signed in April. The provision allows authorities to turn back without a hearing immigrants who are seeking political asylum.


Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, authored the amendment, arguing that the current law doesn't distinguish between asylum and illegal immigration.

"People coming in with false passports, claiming prosecution, don't get a hearing," he said. "They get an interview by whoever is there at the border, and they can get kicked out."

He said people who fear persecution by their own governments cannot be expected to ask those same governments for legal documents so that they can escape.

Leahy's amendment passed 51-49.

Both the House and Senate bills address the issue of genital mutilation. The painful ritual, practiced by some African and Middle Eastern immigrants, involves cutting off part or all of female genitals. It is sometimes known by the more benign term "female circumcision."

The House bill requires authorities to inform immigrants that the practice is unsafe and may be seen as a violation of criminal and child protection codes.

The Senate bill goes further, declaring the practice a federal crime punishable by up to five years in prison.

Now it's up to House and Senate negotiators to produce a compromise bill. The biggest obstacle remains the conservative effort to keep illegal immigrants out of public schools. With immigration such a politically charged issue, there's some speculation that conservatives might deliberately court a presidential veto in this election year.

Correspondent Louise Schiavone contributed to this report.

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