Jun 29 2007

Ala. senators reject immigration bill as Sessions leads charge

The Associated Press

By Ben Evans

Sens. Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions voted Thursday to kill an immigration bill backed by President Bush and a bipartisan group of senators, saying it didn't do enough to crack down on lawbreakers.

"They thought they could ram this through the Senate, and they failed," said Sessions, a Mobile Republican who has led conservative opposition to the bill.

Supporters of the package, including President Bush, said it wasn't perfect but argued it was a reasonable compromise that would tighten border security while reforming work visa laws to get a handle on the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants now in the United States.

They said Washington has an obligation to address the current system, calling it the nation's top domestic priority.

With the failure of the compromise, many predicted the issue would be put off until after the 2008 elections.

"There's no easy answer to it, but I think this bill did not answer the questions," said Shelby, a Republican from Tuscaloosa.

Among other things, the bill would have allowed illegal immigrants to stay in the country by stepping forward, paying fines and applying for temporary work visas. The bill also included a workplace verification system to bar undocumented workers from getting jobs.

Shelby and Sessions argued that the bill amounted to amnesty for illegal immigrants, saying they should not be given legal rights so easily.

Although Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff has warned that border security alone can't solve the problem, both senators said the Bush administration could fill the gap by immediately stepping up enforcement. They called for more spending to accomplish that.

"The Bush administration is very lax on immigration; the Clinton administration was very lax on immigration," Shelby said.

Sessions argued that a crackdown under existing laws would send a strong message.

"You get to a tipping point where everybody knows the border is closed and they stop trying," he said.

The bill's Senate supporters fell 14 votes short of the 60 needed to limit debate and clear the way for final passage of the legislation. The vote was 46 to 53 in favor of limiting the debate.

"I would hope we'd move on to other things," Shelby said.