Washington Kansas Rep. Jerry Moran unexpectedly voted against an immigration and border security bill pushed by President Bush, saying he was protesting the Agriculture Department's decision to stop seeking waivers for foreign doctors to stay in the country.
"I wanted to send a clear message to the administration that you can't have it both ways," Moran said in an interview Wednesday. "You can't be supporting this bill on the House floor a week after you make that decision in regard to J-1 visas, which provide physicians for rural communities across my district."
The measure passed the House with only one vote more than the two-thirds majority it needed. Ninety-two Republicans supported it, but the opposition came mostly from GOP ranks as well, because the underlying border security measure was combined with an immigration bill allowing some illegal immigrants to remain in the United States while they seek permanent residency.
The vote revealed dissent among the four Kansas U.S. House members, with Moran and GOP Rep. Jim Ryun opposing it and the two lawmakers with urban districts, Republican Rep. Todd Tiahrt and Democratic Rep. Dennis Moore, supporting it.
In the Senate, the bill is championed by another Kansan, Republican Sen. Sam Brownback.
Tiahrt represents the Wichita area, while Moore's district includes Kansas City, Kan., and its suburbs. Ryun represents Topeka and most of eastern Kansas, and Moran's district sprawls across rural western and central Kansas.
Moran said he knows of at least seven Kansas communities awaiting visa waiver requests to clear the way for foreign physicians to get to work.
Under the terms of their visas, foreigners who come to the United States for graduate medical study normally must return home for two years when they complete training. But the government often waives the requirement if the physicians agree to work in rural areas.
Hospitals trying to overcome the challenge of recruiting doctors to rural areas have depended for years on U.S. Department of Agriculture waiver requests, which speed the process and make approval much more likely.
But two weeks ago, USDA officials abruptly dropped their involvement in the program and said they would return pending applications. The agency provided no notice or reasoning at the time and later issued a statement alluding to safety concerns arising from the Sept. 11 attacks.
Moran said his vote allowed him to raise the issue with White House officials. On Wednesday, he and colleagues who belong to a congressional rural health care coalition wrote Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge seeking a meeting with all the agencies involved, including Ridge's, USDA, Immigration and Naturalization Service and the State Department, to find a way to fill the gap left by USDA's departure.
"The more I've learned about this issue, my anger has been further directed toward other departments and agencies, not just USDA," Moran said.
Brownback is also a critic of the recent USDA decision. But as an author of the immigration measure, he warned Wednesday that until the measure clears the Senate and is signed into law, bureaucratic systems that led to student visas for two suspected Sept. 11 hijackers will continue to fail.
"We need all components of our government to be on the same page technologically," Brownback said, criticizing the visa approval delivered Monday for Mohamed Atta and Marwan Al-Shehhi, who are believed to have been aboard planes that struck the World Trade Center towers.
The legislation would help thousands of Mexicans living in the United States illegally.