Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said immigration reform was vitally important, and he proposed several amendments to the legislation that would make penalties harsher.
We cannot promote full respect for our laws if there are millions of individuals among us who are here illegally, Hatch said, according to prepared remarks. We must go beyond empty threats of deportation and a policy of perpetual amnesty for those who simply break the law.
Most of Hatch's amendments, which will be debated next week, increase fines or prison sentences - most of them by at least five years. One proposal would increase the potential prison term for an undocumented immigrant convicted of murder, rape or other serious offenses to 30 years, up from the 20 years proposed in the current bill.
Enforcing the laws on the books and ensuring more stringent punishments should be the main focus of any immigration reform, Hatch said.
I suspect that most illegal immigrants come to this country for the same reasons our forefathers came to America: opportunity, Hatch said. The fact is that our borders will be probed for weaknesses so long as we remain a land of opportunity.
The committee will work intermittently over the next three weeks, adhering to strict marching orders by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., to have a bill ready for the full Senate by March 27. Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., called the undertaking ''a gigantic task.''
Illegal immigration and surging violence along the U.S.-Mexican border have combined to become one of the nation's most volatile issues, fanned by the onset of the 2006 mid-term congressional races.
Although Bush has committed his administration to a comprehensive overhaul of the immigration system, lawmakers are struggling to find common ground between pro-immigrant factions and those demanding toughened enforcement.
''It represents a clash between American values,'' said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, co-sponsor of one of the major bills under consideration by the committee. ''We cannot look ourselves in the mirror and claim to be a nation of laws with such rampant lawlessness within our borders.''
The task facing Specter's committee is to produce a compromise package that will not only clear the 100-member Senate, but also will frame negotiations with the House, where many Republicans are vowing to block any bill with a guest-worker provision.
The issue will ultimately be decided by a House-Senate conference committee that will try to resolve differences between bills passed by the two chambers. The House has already passed its version, opting for a get-tough approach on border security that includes a 700-mile fence along the border.
Bush, backed by a diverse coalition of business groups, has called for a temporary-guest-worker program to fill jobs often bypassed by Americans and to guarantee humane treatment for immigrants in the country illegally.
As a starting point for the Judiciary Committee's deliberations, Specter last week unveiled a 305-page bill that has a guest-worker program as well as toughened law enforcement provisions.