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Outrageous Distortion

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You know I’m no fan of the Democraps, but the Repuglicans have crossed some irrevocable line in my mind with this particularly despicable piece of political smear and lying. Ronald Brownstein in the L.A. Times:

[In a] joint statement House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) issued last week about the impasse blocking congressional action on legislation to overhaul the immigration laws [ . . . ] Frist and Hastert blamed Democrats for one of the most controversial ideas in the debate: the provision in the legislation the House of Representatives passed in December designating the estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants in America as felons. The Republican National Committee plans to run Spanish-language radio ads echoing that charge.

The proposal to designate illegal immigrants as criminals, more than anything else, has ignited the nationwide wave of protests against the House bill. [ . . . ] In fact, from the start of the recent debate, Republicans have driven the notion of imposing criminal penalties on illegal immigrants.

Brownstein explains that while it’s a crime to cross the U.S. border illegally, unlawful presence in the United States isn’t a crime; it’s a civil violation of immigration laws. Both illegal border-crossers and legal entrants who’ve overstayed their visas are almost always deported through civil proceedings, because the crime of border crossing is costly to prosecute and hard to prove.

That means it is not a crime to stay in the U.S. after your visa expires. If people overstay their visa, all the government can do is send them home.

That strikes some administration officials and GOP lawmakers as unfair. Because it is a crime to enter the U.S. without authorization, some believe people who overstay a visa should face a criminal penalty.

So as House Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) prepared his border security bill last year, the Justice Department asked him to include a provision making unlawful presence in the U.S. a crime. Sensenbrenner, on the House floor in December, said the idea came from the Bush administration, and an administration official last week, speaking anonymously, confirmed his account.

Both parties agree the administration did not tell Sensenbrenner what sort of crime it believed unlawful presence should be. So Sensenbrenner proposed to make it a felony, subject to a year and a day in prison.

Contrary to the description from Hastert and Frist, Democrats and immigrant groups opposed this proposal from the start.

So how can Democrats be blamed for a criminalization they’ve consistently opposed? Here’s the trick:

After the panel approved the bill, the administration asked Sensenbrenner to change the proposed penalty from a felony to a misdemeanor. Sensenbrenner agreed and said on the House floor that he concluded the felony designation was unworkable because it would require a grand jury indictment, a jury trial and a public defender for the illegal immigrant.

But Sensenbrenner’s amendment to change the crime to a misdemeanor failed when most Democrats and some conservatives voted against it. That’s the vote Hastert and Frist cited to blame Democrats for the provision that would brand illegal immigrants as felons.

Hastert and Frist are right that political posturing contributed to the Democratic vote: They had little interest in helping Republicans sand off the sharpest edge in the GOP bill.

But Democratic opposition rested on a deeper objection that Hastert and Frist ignore. If House Democrats supported the Sensenbrenner amendment, they would have been voting to make unlawful presence a misdemeanor. But almost all Democrats believe it should not be a crime. The House Democrats’ bill retains unlawful presence as a civil, not criminal, violation.

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.

Got that? If you had any trouble following the complexity of that explanation, what about the listeners to Spanish-language radio stations who are likely to get their “facts” from an RNC ad?

Cross-posted on AmbivaBlog