While the “Gang of Eight” Senate negotiators appear close to a deal on immigration reform, legislation still could be hung up by profound political differences over the state of security along the U.S.-Mexican border.
The Obama administration has spent unprecedented sums in recent years to plug up the leaks and engaged in draconian policies to incarcerate and deport illegal immigrants. In the past year alone, Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported a record 409,849 illegal immigrants, up from 396,906 immigrants the previous year, according to ICE figures.
Just how much more needs to be done to satisfy Republican critics is difficult to gauge. The danger for the administration and its Democratic allies on Capitol Hill is that opponents will set an impossibly high bar for stopping the flow of illegal immigrants.
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In the wake of an important compromise between organized labor and industry over a new guest worker visa policy late last week, some “Gang of Eight” members predicted compromise legislation was imminent when Congress returns from a two-week recess. After difficult negotiations, the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce agreed late Friday to a new low-wage visa program – eliminating what many viewed as the biggest stumbling block to an overall immigration reform deal.
Over the weekend, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that while there was not a final deal just yet, he and other Democratic and Republican gang members had reached a “substantive agreement.
“We have specific metrics that are in the bill,” Schumer said, that would be used to measure the success of the administration’s efforts to secure the borders and prevent even more illegal immigrants from trying to slip into the country. “I’m not going to get into what they are to make sure that that happens,” Schumer said of the proposed measurements. “After that happens, there’s a path to citizenship.”
But Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, a pivotal member of the “Gang of Eight,” issued a Sunday morning statement claiming that while he’s “encouraged” by progress in talks, “Reports that the bipartisan group of eight senators have agreed on a legislative proposal are premature.”
Indeed, lawmakers have repeatedly pressed Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to develop a yardstick for judging the administration’s assertions that borders are safer, The New York Times reported recently. But in late March, senior Homeland Security officials acknowledged to Congress that they had not completed the new measurements and were not likely to in coming months.
Lawmakers of both parties were taken aback at a hearing in the House when Mark Borkowski, a senior Homeland Security official, said he had no progress to report on a broad measure of border conditions the department had been working on since 2010, according to The Times. The lawmakers warned that failure by the Obama administration to devise a reliable method of evaluation could imperil passage of immigration legislation.
“We do not want the Department of Homeland Security to be the stumbling block to comprehensive immigration reform for this country,” said Representative Candice Miller, a Michigan Republican who is the chairwoman of the House Homeland Security subcommittee on border security. She told Borkowski the lack of security measurements from the administration “could be a component of our failure to pass something I think is very important for our country.”
“We need to have a measurement,” Senator John McCain, R-Ariz. insisted at another hearing last month. “We need to assure the American people that we have effective control of the border and we have made advances to achieve that. I need to have something to assure people they are not going to live in fear.”
McCain joined Schumer and two other of their fellow “Senate gang” members in Nogales, Ariz., last week to check on border security. A short distance from where they stood with Customs and Border Patrol officials, a young woman was seen dashing out of Mexico, then climbing a security fence. She was soon nabbed by border patrol. McCain tweeted about the startling event: “Just witnessed a woman successfully climb an 18-ft bollard fence a few yards from us in Nogales. And Border Patrol successfully apprehended her, but incident is another reminder that threats to our border security are real.”
Even after seeing the young woman’s desperate sprint into the U.S., McCain endorsed the reform legislation. “With the proper use of technology, with the proper coordination between different agencies, [I believe] we will be able to say that we have a degree of border security that would allow people to move forward to a path of citizenship,” he said.
Obama has already aggressively tightened security along the borders. And while the administration is willing to do more, the president and immigrant advocates are wary that demands for ever-improved measures and metrics would become a pretext for leaving millions of immigrants indefinitely in a second-class probationary limbo.
“Regardless of how much additional effort we put in on the borders, we don't want to make this earned pathway to citizenship a situation in which it's put off – further and further – into the future,” Obama said last week. “There needs to be a certain path for how people can get legal in this country, even as we also work on these strong border security issues.”