Top Senate Republicans are demanding more stringent border-security requirements in legislation that would make the most significant changes to U.S. immigration law in a generation.
The Senate voted yesterday to take up an immigration bill that Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the chamber’s top Republican, said has “serious flaws,” including border controls that are too weak. Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican co-sponsor of the bipartisan measure, has said its border-security provisions must be strengthened to win his support in a final vote on the legislation.
“If border and national security cannot be guaranteed in this bill, I cannot and will not support it,” said Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas, the chamber’s minority whip. He is proposing an amendment to toughen border-security requirements before undocumented U.S. immigrants could gain permanent legal residency.
Democrats are pressing to pass a comprehensive immigration measure that President Barack Obama has made a priority after Hispanic voters gave him 71 percent support in his November re-election. Republicans are trying to reconnect with those voters.
The Senate bill would create a path to citizenship for about 11 million undocumented U.S. immigrants while tightening security at the border with Mexico. It includes $4.5 billion for border security and requires a plan for 100 percent surveillance and a 90 percent apprehension rate along the border before any undocumented immigrant could qualify for permanent legal residency and eventual U.S. citizenship.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid today said the legislation “does not and should not make the path to citizenship contingent upon border-security goals that are impossible” to meet.
“If we made those goals impossible this legislation would be a failure,” Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said on the Senate floor. “I believe some Republicans with no intention of voting for the final bill -- regardless of how it is amended -- seek to offer these amendments with the sole purpose of derailing this vital reform.”
Reid told reporters yesterday that Cornyn’s amendment “would be a poison pill” that would kill the legislation.
Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican co-sponsor of the bill, said he thought Cornyn was working in good faith to improve the measure.
“He wants to improve the bill, and he’s said himself he’d like to vote for it, but he believes that we’ve got to have a firmer trigger,” Flake said at a breakfast today sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. “We’re trying to work with him and trying to find ways that we can accommodate that.”
McConnell told reporters yesterday that Cornyn’s border-security proposal -- which would require the government show that the surveillance and apprehension plan was achieving its goals -- was “the key amendment” to the legislation.
“My amendment demands results,” Cornyn said, adding that the current Senate bill “is satisfied with just more promises, promises that have never been kept.”
Rubio is crafting an amendment on border security with the goal of gaining more Republican support.
Senator Charles Schumer, a New York Democrat and another co-sponsor of the measure, has said members of his party would oppose changing the border-security standards that must be met before undocumented immigrants can seek legalization.
Other Republican amendments include a Rubio proposal to require undocumented immigrants granted legal status to learn to read, write and speak English, and a proposal from Senator Roger Wicker of Mississippi to revoke the legal status of immigrants who fraudulently claimed federal benefits. About 50 amendments had been filed to the bill as of midday.
Amendments that Democrats plan to offer would promote gay rights, gun control and protections for U.S. workers.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, yesterday filed an amendment that would give gay U.S. citizens the same right that heterosexual ones have to petition for permanent residency for their foreign spouses.
Leahy initially pushed for the provision during his panel’s consideration of the immigration bill last month, then withdrew it without a vote amid concerns it would stymie the legislation. Some Republicans, including Rubio, said the same-sex provision would likely kill the bill.
A prior effort in Congress to revise U.S. immigration law stalled in 2007.
The last major immigration revision, signed by then-President Ronald Reagan in 1986, made 3 million undocumented workers eligible for legal status and created a market for fraudulent documentation. Illegal immigration soared, casting a shadow on subsequent efforts to legalize undocumented immigrants.
In a pair of procedural votes yesterday, the Senate cleared the way for floor debate on the bill. Democratic leaders want to pass the measure by July 4 and send it to the House.
A bipartisan House negotiating group is working on its immigration proposal and plans to present it later this month. The House Judiciary Committee is taking a piecemeal approach, considering separate measures to address aspects of immigration law, including the flow of agricultural and high-skilled workers.
House Speaker John Boehner has said the Senate measure doesn’t go far enough toward improving border security and enforcement.
Still, the Ohio Republican told reporters today that passing immigration legislation is “an important project of this Congress.”
“We’ve had big problems and they’ve gone on far too long,” Boehner said.
Obama said yesterday that the Senate bill, S. 744, is the best chance in years to fix the immigration system.
“If you’re actually serious and sincere about fixing a broken system, this is the vehicle to do it, and now’s the time to get it done,” the president said at the White House yesterday. He urged supporters to “call and tweet your senators and tell them, ‘Don’t kick this problem down the road.’”
The president “strongly supports” Senate passage of the measure and “looks forward to working with the Congress to further improve this bill,” according to an administration statement.
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