Best to read the fine print in Senate immigration bill

Foreign ice hockey players, territorial Mexican politicians and FBI bean-counters now have something in common: a stake in the Senate’s big immigration reform bill.

There is a lot of fine print in the 600-plus-page bill passed this week. It’s true, as senators say, that the legislation would erect more border barriers and seek to better manage the nation’s estimated 12 million illegal immigrants. But it also includes perks to the privileged, blurs some border security provisions, and makes other substantive changes that activists on both sides of the debate are only now beginning to understand.

Some of these lesser-known provisions were included days before and simply got little attention because of the scope of the overall bill. Others were adopted just minutes before the bill’s vote Thursday evening, part of a 100-page-plus “manager’s amendment.”

“It’s a bear,” Laura Reiff, co-chair of a business consortium called the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition, said Friday of the manager’s amendment. “I have not gone through it all. None us of really were privy to seeing it ahead of time. We as a business coalition are going to be going through it very carefully.”

More minor-league athletes from other countries could get visas under the bill. More veterans could be recruited for border duty. The U.S. government would need to consult with various Mexican officials before new border fences could go in. Frequent Western Hemisphere travelers would get a new traveling card. More Canadian power-line workers could enter if they have received “significant training.”

Two-thousand Christian Iraqis in the Detroit area who now face deportation _ and more in other parts of the country _ could become eligible for legal permanent residency status. That provision seeks to undo a judge’s finding that religious minorities who came here seeking asylum from Saddam Hussein’s regime and got caught in an immigration backlog no longer have claims simply because the Iraqi leader was deposed.

Collectively, such provisions showcase another side to how Congress works, illustrating how votes are gathered, deals struck and negotiations anticipated.

In their roles as bipartisan managers of the immigration bill, Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts agreed to the train of amendments sought by various colleagues and lobbyists. But most other senators did not have a chance to read through the last-minute changes before they voted to adopt them.

“Something like a last-minute manager’s amendment is a further vehicle for destructive mischief,” said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. “The whole thing is an insult to citizenship and respect for the rule of law, so why shouldn’t they just carve up the program and continue to deliver special benefits for high-end, Olympic athletes and other big bidders?”

Stein vigorously opposes the Senate bill. But even supporters acknowledged they were still trying to catch up with just what the bill, in its current form, would do were it to become law.

On a conference call Friday, 18 hours after the Senate voted, a reporter asked Cecilia Munoz of the National Council of La Raza about the status of a provision in the Senate bill that gives eligible illegal immigrants just a six-month window to apply for legal residency. Munoz said she knew there had been last-minute efforts to use the manager’s amendment language to expand that window, but she wasn’t sure whether the change made it in.

“I haven’t yet gone through all 115 pages!” Munoz said.

Randel Johnson of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said business advocates “tried very, very hard up until the eleventh hour” to use the manager’s amendment “to get a fix” when they realized the Senate bill might require them to pay guest workers higher prevailing wages in situations where that wage would not apply to American workers.

Even some opponents of the overall bill _ critics of loosening immigration rules _ were given last-minute amendments.

Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, for instance, argued vociferously against the immigration bill and voted against it. Nonetheless, the final amendment package includes legislation he introduced dubbed the “SKIL Act,” which eases immigration for science, math and engineering students.

Some lawmakers used some amendments to follow up on unfinished business. The Senate bill includes $3.1 million a year for the FBI to speed work on background and security checks. The FBI would need the money to cope with the bill’s requirement for background checks on millions of immigrants seeking legal status.

Others secured amendments to quietly create new loopholes. The bill’s guest-worker program earlier would have kicked out immigrants unemployed for 60 or more consecutive days. The last-minute amendments loosened this, saying that vacation, sick time and “circumstances beyond the control of the alien” wouldn’t be counted toward the 60-day limit.