Altering Immigration Bill Risks Losing Senators’ Votes

Democrats and Republicans alike are seeking alterations in the Senate immigration proposal that may imperil the bill as the Judiciary Committee begins considering as many as 300 amendments.

The panel is starting today with provisions to improve border security and define what goals must be met before the U.S. government opens a path to citizenship for 11 million immigrants now in the U.S. illegally. The bill was proposed by a group of four Republican and four Democratic senators.

In their drafting of the legislation, the senators “found a number of sweet spots” on contentious issues that foiled past efforts to revise immigration laws, said Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, an organization of state-based business groups seeking a new law.

“We might see a debate in the markup where we get pulled way off those sweet spots in one direction and then way off those sweet spots in the other direction,” Jacoby said.

Republicans will mainly focus on strengthening the bill’s border security goals, which Democrats say can’t be made so stringent that they become unreachable and prevent anyone from becoming a citizen. Some Democrats are seeking immigration protection for same-sex couples, which Republican authors of the plan oppose.

“We haven’t come down with a definitive fine cut in terms of what we accept and what we don’t,” said Illinois Senator Richard Durbin, a Democratic co-sponsor of the bill, speaking of the others in his group.

‘Be Careful’

“I’ve heard some of the eight speak about strengthening the bill,” Durbin said. “They might strengthen it to the conservative liking at the expense of Democratic support. So you’ve got to be careful.”

The border security provisions have been scrutinized more heavily since the April 15 Boston Marathon bombings, which prosecutors said were carried out by two brothers who legally immigrated from Kyrgyzstan.

The Senate measure requires specific benchmarks to be met in improving border security before undocumented immigrants can begin qualifying for eventual citizenship. The apprehension rate in illegal crossings must reach 90 percent in high-risk sectors along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, is proposing a full replacement of the border-security provisions. Cruz would triple the number of Border Patrol agents along the U.S.-Mexico border and quadruple surveillance equipment such as cameras and drones before any prospective citizen could be granted “registered provisional immigrant” status.

Security Screening

One of the bill’s Republican authors, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, wants to require additional security screening of anyone seeking to become a citizen from a country that “represents a threat, or contains groups or organizations that represent a threat, to the national security of the United States.”

Iowa Senator Charles Grassley, the Judiciary panel’s top Republican, would bar prospective citizens from receiving “registered provisional immigrant” status until the U.S. maintained “effective control of the borders” for at least six months.

Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, a Republican among the chamber’s most vocal opponents of the bill, proposes capping at 20 million the number of immigrants who could become permanent residents in the first decade after the bill is enacted.

‘Starting Point’

Sessions contends that creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants would undercut U.S. workers and harm the economy. In a statement, Sessions called his proposal “a starting point in scaling back the extraordinary and unacceptable” flow of immigrants he said the plan would create.

On the Democratic side, Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont wants to add to the bill language that would treat foreign nationals married to a same-sex U.S. citizen equally with those married to a citizen of the opposite sex.

“For immigration reform to be truly comprehensive, it must include protections for all families,” Leahy said in a statement. “We must end the discrimination that gay and lesbian families face in our immigration law.”

Graham told reporters that Leahy’s proposal is a “bad idea” that would “kill the bill.” Two other Republican members of the Senate group, Florida’s Marco Rubio and Arizona’s John McCain, have said they oppose the same-sex provision.

Public Housing

Other Democratic amendments that may draw Republican opposition include a proposal by Minnesota Democrat Al Franken to make public housing assistance available to immigrants who are victims of domestic abuse.

The committee handling the amendments -- a process expected to run into next week -- includes several sponsors. Four members of the bipartisan Senate group -- Democrats Durbin and Charles Schumer of New York and Republicans Graham and Jeff Flake of Arizona -- are members of the Judiciary Committee.

“We’ll move a number of amendments, and maybe we’ll be able to consolidate some, and I hope we can move quickly,” Durbin said. “My guess is knowing the dynamics of senatorial conduct people get worn out after a while, and we’re counting on that.”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, has said he plans to bring the immigration bill to the floor in June after the Judiciary panel completes work on it.

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration is monitoring the progress of the bill, S. 744, though he had no comment on any of the proposed amendments.

“It is essential for a bill to emerge that is bipartisan in nature, that achieves the principles” spelled out by President Barack Obama, Carney told reporters yesterday.

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