Border bill backers seek boost in enforcement provisions

Senate negotiators of a compromise immigration bill are writing a catchall amendment, sponsored by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to bolster enforcement provisions of the bill, including a more robust "touchback" requirement for illegal immigrants.

Republicans outside the negotiating team are asking that Graham's amendment, as well as a few others, get a floor vote before a cloture is attempted on the bill. "If they want the bill to have a chance, that's what has to happen," said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., who said he is willing to vote for the first cloture motion to proceed to the bill to allow the amendment process to begin.

Burr left open the possibility he would vote for the second cloture motion, which would ensure a final vote on the bill, if the bill is improved from his perspective by the amendments.

In addition to a new touchback requirement for illegal immigrants, negotiator Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., said the Graham amendment will include jail time for immigrants who enter the country illegally or overstay temporary visas after the measure is enacted.

The amendment also will tweak the 200,000 annual cap on the guestworker program to allow more of them into the country by exempting workers who are returning for a second time. If negotiators are able to hammer out a deal on the H-1B program, that language also will be included in the Graham amendment.

Burr said he wants the new touchback provision in Graham's amendment to require all illegal immigrants in the country to return to their home countries before they apply for a "Z" visa. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, is seeking a vote on a similar amendment to require those touchbacks to occur within two years.

Burr said Graham's touchback provision would allow illegal workers to have a provisional visa while background checks are being conducted. "I believe the provisional period can be whatever length of time it takes to fully vet all these people that they are who they say they are. Does their employment record check out? Does their law enforcement record check out? It doesn't entitle them to anything except the ability to apply" for a Z visa, he said.

The touchback provision is emerging as a component critical to attracting support from Republicans like Burr who are wary about the legalization provisions in the bill. Negotiators, for their part, are backing away from labeling any amendments as deal-breakers, knowing that opponents will vote for them to kill the bill. If one of the "killer amendments" passes next week, an alternate strategy for supporters would be to allow another deal-breaker from the other party to pass.

"If this bill goes down because it isn't this or it isn't that, the greater good of the bill will be lost," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., one of the negotiators.

With a cloture motion approved Thursday afternoon on an energy bill, debate on the immigration bill is virtually assured to be pushed into next week. Senate Judiciary Immigration Subcommittee Chairman Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said Thursday he now expects the first cloture vote on the immigration bill to occur Tuesday.

Depending on how the amendment process develops, the immigration debate could spill into the weekend before the July Fourth recess. Several Republicans who avidly object to the bill have vowed to use every procedural tactic available to them to stop the bill from moving forward, which could slow the debate, but not foreclose final passage.

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