Details Bedevil Immigration Rewrite Near Raucous Debates

It was never going to be easy.

As a bipartisan group of senators puts the finishing touches on legislation to legalize 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and revamp immigration laws, complex side-deals and policy details underpinning such a measure are complicating an agreement.

Negotiators were nearing compromises on a proposed agricultural-worker visa program and border security requirements that would have to precede any program for legalization of the undocumented. Still, members of the group of eight senators expressed doubt they would meet their self-imposed deadline of unveiling legislation by week’s end.

Democratic Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois said he was “not sure” whether the group would meet that goal, adding that he couldn’t predict when the measure would be ready.

“It turns out that the drafting part of this is much more challenging,” Durbin said in an interview.

It’s the latest evidence of what veterans of immigration debates in Washington have long known: The landscape is fraught with complicated, parochial and politically tricky issues and doesn’t lend itself to quick agreements.

At the same time, other topics are vying for lawmakers’ attention.

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida scrapped plans to brief fellow Republicans on the immigration measure today during a closed-door luncheon. Instead, the session was dominated by talk of another marquee issue on which senators have managed to reach a bipartisan accord: expanding background checks of prospective gun buyers.

Gun Debate

“We didn’t get a chance to get to it today,” Rubio said leaving the meeting. “The gun debate dominated everything.”

The obstacles to an immigration accord include provisions for farmworkers and highly educated guest workers, the basic question of any future legal status for the undocumented already in the U.S. and the potential cost, or economic benefits, of a new system.

Senator Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, said in an interview today that farmworkers and growers had reached a tentative accord, while declining to discuss details.

“There is a tentative agreement between the farmworkers and growers, and the only question is extension to some of the Southeast growers,” Menendez said after briefing members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

The bipartisan Senate group is scheduled to meet later today at the Capitol.

‘Profound Under-Appreciation’

“There has been a profound under-appreciation throughout this process of how complex and how really difficult this is,” said Angela Kelley, vice president of Immigration Policy and Advocacy at the Democratic-leaning Center for American Progress. She attributed this week’s “slowdown” to senators’ return from a two-week break during which their staff members identified important, unresolved details. “They’re pregnant; they’re going to deliver a baby bill -- it just may take a little more than nine months.”

That may be unwelcome news for proponents of the immigration rewrite including President Barack Obama, who began the year determined to seize the momentum from the 2012 presidential elections to swiftly push through far-reaching legislation. The president threatened to introduce his own plan if lawmakers didn’t do so in short order.

Time Pressures

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, announced today that his panel will hold a hearing on the bipartisan measure April 17, another indication of the time pressures facing those crafting a compromise.

The challenges in reaching such a pact foreshadow the difficulty that Democrats, who control the Senate, face in corralling the 60 votes needed to push an immigration proposal to a final vote. The odds are steeper in the Republican-led House, where opposition to granting citizenship to undocumented immigrants is stronger and lawmakers consider the Senate group’s proposed visa program for lower-skilled, non-farmworkers too union-friendly.

“The things that they’re stumbling over are things that we’ve consistently stumbled over in the past,” said Rebecca Tallent, director of the Bipartisan Policy Center’s immigration task force and a former chief of staff to Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona. The senator was a central player in a failed 2007 overhaul effort and in this year’s talks.

“It’s great when people agree to principles, but when you start putting pen to paper, it gets much, much tougher,” said Tallent, who recalled taking part in an immigration negotiation as a congressional aide that fell apart over a single word in labor law. “People underestimate how difficult this is.”

Agricultural Hurdle

A dispute over a visa program for farmworkers who harvest the bulk of U.S. fruits and vegetables emerged this week as a vexing example. It pits U.S. farmers and groups representing companies including Chiquita Brands International Inc. and Sunkist Growers Inc. against the United Farm Workers of America in a fight over visa numbers and wage requirements.

“It’s not necessarily sticking points; it’s a complex bill,” said Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, another member of the bipartisan group. “These are provisions that take a while to write.”

The farmworker spat came little more than a week after the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups reached a hard-fought accord with the AFL-CIO and others in organized labor on visas and wages for a separate low-skilled visa program to cover workers in such fields as hospitality, janitorial services, retail and construction.

Science, Technology

Another contentious issue has been how to accommodate Republican demands to increase the number of visas awarded to foreign nationals who receive graduate degrees in science and technology fields from U.S. universities.

The delays and 11th-hour struggles give proponents of an immigration overhaul some confidence, as they maintain that an agreement hatched in painstaking private negotiations among senators and interest groups is bound to fall apart.

“Reality is sinking in a little bit,” said Rosemary Jenks, director of government relations at NumbersUSA, a group that opposes allowing undocumented immigrants to remain permanently in the U.S. “This whole idea that we’re all friends in this room, and we’re going to come up with this great deal, and we’ll just introduce it and it will sail through -- it’s never been a realistic view.”

Some advocates who have long pressed for a deal and express optimism that new immigration laws can be enacted this year concede the process won’t be simple.

Only Starting

Frank Sharry of America’s Voice Education Fund, a group advocating a broad immigration rewrite including citizenship for undocumented immigrants, said he’s been surprised at how much common ground the Senate group has found given the issue’s complexity. Yet he cautioned that even after lawmakers unveil their legislation, it faces a rough road.

When the Senate group is ready with a plan, selling it is another matter. Members met yesterday at the Capitol with Leahy to update him on the talks. He expects his panel to consider the measure in early May.

“It’ll be a roller-coaster ride with lots of thrills and chills and even some near-death experiences, because there’s going to be a ferocious opposition -- in the Senate, in the House, outside of Congress -- that is going to try to define and distort what the bill does and doesn’t do, and will hope for a grassroots backlash that will overwhelm Congress,” Sharry said.

Potential Cost

One issue increasingly being cited to generate a groundswell against the measure is the potential cost of granting legal status to undocumented immigrants.

Robert Rector, an analyst at the fiscally conservative Heritage Foundation, is updating a 2007 study he conducted that estimated legalizing undocumented immigrants would cost at least $2.6 trillion. That is based in large part on the cost of granting them access to the social safety net including Social Security, Medicare and various welfare programs.

Pro-overhaul groups counter with studies assessing the economic benefits of an immigration rewrite. The American Action Forum, a Republican-aligned organization pressing for the overhaul, released a study by former Congressional Budget Office Director Douglas Holtz-Eakin projecting it would raise the pace of economic growth by almost 1 percentage point over a decade. In turn, the long-term federal debt would be reduced by as much as $2.7 trillion.

Undocumented Immigrants

That may not carry much weight with fiscal conservatives incensed by the idea that undocumented immigrants could eventually gain access to mandated coverage under the 2010 Affordable Care Act implemented to offer health insurance to millions who lack coverage.

“The cost issue is everything to House Republicans, and all the incremental issues aside, that’s going to trump everything,” Tallent said. “Those who don’t want this bill done are going to have a lot more ammunition this time than they’ve had in the past.”

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