ATLANTA - Any immigration reform bill that gives undocumented workers a path to American citizenship would repeat mistakes Congress made 20 years ago in granting illegals amnesty, U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said Tuesday.
"That was the trigger that got us into the situation we're in today,'' Chambliss told reporters during a telephone conference call. "People on the other side of the border saw a chance to come across illegally and get some kind of legal status.''
Chambliss is pushing an amendment this week that would remove from the bill a provision allowing illegal immigrants working in agriculture to become U.S. citizens following an 11-year process that would include undergoing a background check, paying a $2,000 fine and learning English.
His proposal instead would require illegal farm workers to return to their home countries after two years and re-enter the U.S. in a legal manner.
Senate leadership has set a goal of passing a bill by the end of this week and getting the illegal immigration issue into a conference committee with the House, which passed its version of the legislation last December.
Congress granted a limited amnesty in 1986 to some 3 million illegal immigrants then living in the U.S., which is believed to have touched off a wave of immigration primarily from Latin American countries.
Today, the nation's population of illegals is estimated at about 12 million.
"The '86 law failed, and it failed miserably,'' Chambliss said.
The same thing happened when Congress granted another amnesty to illegals in 1990, said Phil Kent, the Atlanta-based national spokesman for Americans for Immigration Control.
"This would be the third amnesty,'' he said.
But Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, said the influx of illegal workers into the U.S. is more the result of America's booming economy than those amnesty programs.
"There is a huge demand for labor, but we don't have (enough) legal means to come into this country,'' he said.
Gonzalez said Latin Americans who are willing to come to the U.S., do backbreaking labor in low-paying jobs and learn the language deserve the right to eventually obtain citizenship.
"Keeping people without a hope of opportunity would hurt the entrepreneurial spirit we want as Americans,'' he said. "Creating a path to citizenship would help in the assimilation process.''
Chambliss conceded that Senate Republicans are sharply divided over the issue. The bill that passed the Judiciary Committee and includes the 11-year path to citizenship has the blessing of Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., the panel's chairman.
Chambliss said the one point on which all of the senators agree is the need to beef up border security.
But beyond that, he said the issue is so contentious that the Senate may not be able to pass a bill before the two-week recess that starts at the end of this week.
"This is the most sensitive issue, emotional issue and politically charged issue I've seen in my 12 years in Congress,'' he said. "We've still got a long way to go.''