Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank described a Republican-sponsored amendment to reduce the charge for unlawful presence in the United States from a felony to a misdemeanor as "an effort to soften" the enforcement-only House immigration reform bill. In fact, Republicans sought to downgrade the criminal penalty in order to facilitate prosecution.
In his April 24 "This Week" column, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank described a Republican-sponsored amendment to reduce the charge for unlawful presence in the United States from a felony to a misdemeanor as "an effort to soften" the enforcement-only House immigration reform bill. In fact, Republicans sought to downgrade the criminal penalty in order to facilitate prosecution, as Media Matters for America noted.
On December 16, 2005, the GOP-led House passed a stringent immigration reform bill sponsored by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-WI). Among the legislation's components was a controversial provision subjecting illegal immigrants to possible felony charges (unlawful presence is currently a civil violation). But prior to the final vote on the bill, Sensenbrenner proposed an amendment to reduce the penalty from a felony to a misdemeanor. Citing their across-the-board opposition to criminal penalties, 191 Democrats opposed the measure, which subsequently failed by a vote of 257-164.
As the Senate took up the issue of immigration reform in March and April, pro-immigrant groups held massive protests in cities nationwide, largely provoked by the House-approved felony provision. In an effort to distance themselves from this element of the legislation, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-TN) and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-IL) attempted to shift the blame on to the Democrats, highlighting the Democrats' opposition to Sensenbrenner's amendment and assailing them for their purported "lack of compassion." The Republican National Committee (RNC) even produced ads claiming that Democrats "voted to treat millions of hardworking immigrants as felons ... while President Bush and Republican leaders work for legislation that will protect our borders and honor our immigrants." In response to Hastert and Frist's accusation, Los Angeles Times columnist Ron Brownstein asserted that the Republicans had "misrepresent[ed] the evidence" in this case. From his April 16 column:
Hastert and Frist charged that House Democrats voted to oppose "efforts to reduce the crime of unlawful presence ... from a felony to a misdemeanor." In fact, House Democrats opposed an effort to increase the penalty for unlawful presence from a civil violation to a criminal misdemeanor.
Indeed, as Media Matters noted in response to media figures' repetition of this argument, the stated motive behind the GOP effort to downgrade the criminal penalty was not to make the bill less punitive, but rather to enhance the government's ability to prosecute illegal immigrants. When Sensenbrenner introduced the amendment, he made clear that the White House had lobbied for the change because it feared the due process requirements associated with felony charges would limit the number of actual prosecutions.
From Sensenbrenner's December 16, 2005, floor statement:
SENSENBRENNER: The administration subsequently requested the penalty for these crimes be lowered to 6 months. Making the first offense a felony, as the base bill would do, would require a grand jury indictment, a trial before a district court judge and a jury trial.
Also because it is a felony, the defendant would be able to get a lawyer at public expense if the defendant could not afford the lawyer. These requirements would mean that the government would seldom if ever actually use the new penalties. By leaving these offenses as misdemeanors, more prosecutions are likely to be brought against those aliens whose cases merit criminal prosecution.
For this reason, the amendment returns the sentence for illegal entry to its current 6 months and sets the penalty for unlawful presence at the same level.
Nonetheless, Milbank -- echoing an April 12 article by Post staff writer Jonathan Weisman -- described it as "an effort to soften the bill by making immigration violations misdemeanors rather than felonies."
Further, Milbank baselessly claimed that Bush's position on immigration reform has shifted "toward what foes brand as 'amnesty' for illegal immigrants." From Milbank's April 24 column:
President Bush today tries to revive prospects for immigration legislation in Congress, which has failed to come up with an agreement amid complaints that the White House has been absent from the debate.
In Irvine, Calif., Bush gives a speech on "Comprehensive Immigration Reform," a package that goes beyond the solely punitive bill passed by the House and toward what foes brand as "amnesty" for illegal immigrants.
The "amnesty" proposals in question are those that include a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. The most prominent is the "Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006," approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee on March 27, which provides such an opportunity to most of the 11 to 12 million illegal immigrants currently in the United States. A subsequent compromise proposal offered the possibility of citizenship to those immigrants who have been in the country illegally for more than 2 years.
While the White House commended both pieces of legislation, Bush has not expressed his full support for either proposal and has given no indication that he has shifted away from his opposition to so-called "amnesty," as Milbank suggested. Indeed, a March 27 fact-sheet laying out the president's "Vision for Comprehensive Immigration Reform" clearly stated that, while he supports a temporary worker program, he "firmly opposes amnesty." In an April 5 statement, he expressed his support for "a guest worker provision that is not amnesty, one that provides for automatic citizenship." And in his April 8 radio address, Bush reiterated that "comprehensive immigration reform must include a temporary worker program that relieves pressure on our borders, while rejecting amnesty." He further stated, "We must ensure that those who break our laws are not granted an automatic path to citizenship."