In coverage of GOP announcement, print media ignored felony provisions in House immigration bill


In their coverage of the postponement of congressional negotiations on immigration reform, several major print media outlets failed to note that legislation passed by House Republicans would designate as felons the approximately 11 million illegal immigrants currently residing in the United States.

In their coverage of House GOP leaders' decision to postpone congressional negotiations on immigration reform, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Associated Press all described the legislation passed by House Republicans in general terms, noting that the measure focused on "border security" or "border enforcement." But these reports failed to note that the House bill would designate as felons the approximately 11 million illegal immigrants currently residing in the United States.

On December 16, 2005, the House of Representatives approved the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act by a vote of 239-182, with 203 Republicans voting in favor. The bill, sponsored by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-WI), made it a criminal offense to be in the United States illegally or to aid illegal immigrants and mandated the construction of a 700-mile-long fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. Sensenbrenner later disclosed that House Republicans had "worked very closely with White House in the fall in putting together the border security bill that the House passed," and added that "it was the White House that had requested two controversial felony provisions in the bill the House passed last winter." The House approach provoked widespread opposition from pro-immigrant groups, which in March and April held large protests nationwide. The bill's felony provisions drew particular criticism, and many House Republicans attempted to distance themselves from the measure. At one point, the Republican National Committee even ran radio ads in several southwestern states attempting to falsely blame Democrats for the language making illegal presence in the U.S. a felony.

On May 25, the Senate passed the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006 with bipartisan support and Bush's blessing. The bill offered the possibility of citizenship to most illegal immigrants currently residing in the United States. Specifically, it divided the undocumented immigrant population into three categories. Those in the United States for five years or more would be allowed to remain in the country and begin working toward citizenship, assuming they met certain conditions. Those in the United States between two and five years would be required to return to a port of entry where they would be granted temporary worker visas and could become eligible for eventual citizenship. Illegal immigrants in the country less than two years would be required to return home. Further, the Senate bill instituted a guest-worker program and boosted the number of Border Patrol agents.

Bush's backing of the Senate's "comprehensive" legislation drew the ire of House Republicans, due to the White House's earlier support for their more punitive approach. For instance, Sensenbrenner accused Bush of "turn[ing] his back on provisions of the House-passed bill, a lot of which we were requested to put in the bill by the White House."

On June 20, House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-IL) and other House Republican leaders unveiled their plan to hold nationwide hearings on immigration reform during July and August. The announcement made it highly unlikely that negotiations over the differing House and Senate immigration bills would take place in the coming months with a vote on the final legislation in the fall.

In a June 21 article on this development, New York Times reporter Carl Hulse reported that House Republicans "passed a party-line bill late last year that focused solely on border enforcement" and that they "consider the Senate bill amnesty for those who have entered the country illegally." A June 21 Los Angeles Times article by staff writer Nicole Gaouette similarly reported that the "Republican-controlled House passed border security legislation last year, largely along party lines" and noted House conservatives' argument that the Senate bill amounts to "amnesty." A June 20 article by Associated Press staff writer David Espo cited "the distance between the House and Senate approaches to immigration" and reported that House conservatives "had only debated enforcement measures."

But absent from all of these reports was any mention of the controversial felony provisions included in the House bill. Media Matters for America previously noted articles published in April by the AP and the Times that similarly ignored House Republicans' support for criminal penalties.

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