Chattanooga Times Free Press - Lee Pitts
WASHINGTON — As the Senate continued debating Thursday the merits of increasing border security versus establishing a guest worker program for the nation’s illegal immigrants, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., unveiled a measure encouraging legal immigrants to become Americans.
"Our country’s greatest accomplishment is based upon the principle that we have united people from many backgrounds into one nation, based upon our belief in a few ideas rather than upon race, ancestry or background," Sen. Alexander said. His amendment would help prospective citizens learn English by providing $500 grants for language courses. It also would allow citizenship applicants who speak fluent English to be eligible for citizenship in four years instead of five.
The measure would provide grants for organizations to offer civics and history courses, codify the Oath of Allegiance and instructs the federal government to raise public awareness of naturalization ceremonies.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., introduced his own amendment that would prohibit the implementation of a guest worker program until the Department of Homeland Security certifies in writing that the U.S. borders are secure.
"The people of this country are looking to us to secure our borders for the homeland and for immigration," Sen. Isakson said.
Sen. Alexander said 60 percent of doctoral students in the nation’s universities are foreigners. He said making it easier for them to become U.S. citizens would help create a higher standard of living in the United States.
"It makes no sense for us to have an immigration system that makes it easy for unskilled work- ers to come here illegally and harder for the brightest people to come here," Sen. Alexander said.
David Lubell, director of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, said his organization is not ready to take a position on Sen. Alexander’s amendment. He said the demand for English and citizenship classes outstrips the supply.
"Immigrants want to become a part of society," Mr. Lubell said.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-GaR - Ga RGa., speaking on the Senate floor Thursday, said the Senate does not need to tackle the issue of citizenship until it reforms immigration law and bolsters border security.
He attacked immigration legislation offered by the Senate Judiciary Committee that he said offers a clear path to citizenship for illegal workers. Such provisions punish employers who are hiring workers while abiding by the law, he said.
"We are going to be giving folks who are here illegally preferential treatment over those who are here legally," he said.
Sen. Chambliss, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said proposed minimum requirements for an illegal farm worker to gain guest worker status would require the immigrant to work just 48 days a year. Sen. Chambliss predicted those immigrants would not work on farms any longer than necessary to gain temporary worker status.
Mr. Lubell said the current limit of 5,000 visas available each year for unskilled workers is unrealistic. He said he supports increasing the number of visas for low-skilled workers to 400,000. Sen. Isakson said a 1986 program that granted amnesty to 3 million illegal immigrants did not secure the border and enticed millions more immigrants to enter the nation illegally. He said he would fight to make sure the borders are secure first this time.
"A failure to do so is to pass a compounded problem to another generation of Americans," he said. "We will deal with not just 3 million illegals coming, but millions and millions and millions more all because we looked the other way."
Also late Thursday, the Senate approved an amendment by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn, authorizing the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection to collect statistics relating to deaths occurring at the border between the United States and Mexico.
Sen. Frist has said that a legislative focus on border security would protect both U.S. citizens and prospective immigrants who often are victimized by smugglers. He said as many as 225 people died last year along the Arizona border.