May 22, 2007 -- Senators began to debate the complex, 300-plus page immigration reform bill Tuesday, with those on the right and the left equally unhappy with various provisions in the bill, and with each side seeking to exorcise the devil in the details.
Liberals argued the immigration reform bill's provision to allow 400,000 guest workers into the United States a year may subject those workers to exploitation by business interests and drive down wages for Americans.
Guest Worker Program Begets 'Chicken Pluckers' Debate
"Let's call it what it is," said Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who opposes the guest-worker program. "This is a provision by which the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said, 'We'll support your legislation if you allow us to bring in more cheap labor.'"
Dorgan argued that there is no real need for guest workers and tried unsuccessfully to kill the provision.
Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., took the Senate floor in opposition to his Democratic colleague and, red-faced and gesticulating toward Dorgan, defended the guest worker program, yelling, "The idea that you can have a secure border and close it completely is something that has never happened before and will not happen now. And the idea that you eliminate completely the guest worker program means what? It means you're going to have border guards that are going to be chasing after landscapers out in the middle of the desert and racing after people that might be working in gardens or [as] bartenders in the future."
The Senate's "liberal lion" continued to howl at Dorgan, demanding, "I would like the chicken pluckers to pay $10.15 -- or $15 an hour. They don't do it, and they're not going to do it. Who's the -- who are you trying to kid? Who is the senator from North Dakota trying to fool?"
Dorgan, full of his own pluck after arguing all day against the temporary worker program that he said would depress American wages and take jobs from Americans, did not back down.
"Let me stand up and say a word on behalf of chicken pluckers," he began, addressing the Senate chamber. "They'll never get $15 an hour as long as we bring in cheap labor through the back door to pluck chickens."
Moments after the testy exchange, the immigration compromise survived its first test -- an amendment by Dorgan that would have stripped the guest worker program failed by a wide margin, with only 31 senators in favor of removing it while 64 voted to keep it as part of the larger immigration package.
Democratic Fissures, Conservative Complaints
The debate over the guest worker program highlights fissures among Democrats on the issue.
And conservatives are focused on toughening up what they see as lenient and permissive treatment of those in the United States illegally, who would be given legal status and a new renewable visa under the current bill.
"We're saying the border is closed, but we turn around and have a bill that says if somebody got past the National Guard, got past the Border Patrol, got around the fence is now going to be put on a guaranteed path to citizenship," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.
Campaign Trail Heats Up Over Immigration
The immigration debate also found its way into the 2008 presidential campaign this week.
In a new television ad, former Massachusetts Republican Gov. Mitt Romney has blasted the latest version of the bill as "a form of amnesty," citing the new visa classification that would give undocumented immigrants legal status.
"Amnesty is not the way to do it," Romney says in the ad.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, responded this week, arguing Romney's position amounts to a flip-flop from his previous position on immigration.
"In the case of Gov. Romney, maybe I should wait a couple weeks and see if [his position] changes," said McCain on a conference call Monday to journalists. "Because it's changed in less than a year from his position before."
McCain, an author of the compromise, added with no small dose of sarcasm, "Maybe his solution will be to get out his small-varmint gun and drive those Guatemalans off his lawn," referring to a Boston Globe report that found Romney hired a landscaping service that employs illegal immigrants.
The current immigration bill is a compromise package hammered out late Monday night, which involved lengthy negotiations with the White House and congressional leaders.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said vehement disagreement over the bill's provisions may ultimately produce better immigration legislation.
"No one is happy. No one is taking advantage of anyone else," concluded Reid.