Immigration Bill Passes More ‘Poison Pill’ Hurdles
Business + Economy

Immigration Bill Passes More ‘Poison Pill’ Hurdles

REUTERS/Joshua Lott

By dodging any last minute “poison pill” amendments on border security, the Senate “Gang of Eight” on Tuesday took a giant step toward passing bipartisan immigration reform this year. 

While Democratic and Republican lawmakers have made a handful of concessions during a markup in the Judiciary Committee – including an amendment last week by Sen.  Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, to expand a requirement that the government apprehend at least 90 percent of people attempting to cross the border illegally – nothing has been added to the bill so far that would prove fatal to passage.

Judiciary Committee members still have a long way to go to knock off the more than 300 amendments that have been added to the legislation on topics ranging from the legal pathway to citizenship to the number  of special visas made available for highly skilled and unskilled workers.  But it now appears that the committee will approve the measure and send it to the floor for a vote this summer. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., told The Fiscal Times yesterday, “I think we can get it done.”

The bill will face a renewed assault on the floor from Grassley, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and other arch foes, and whether proponents can muster the 60-vote super majority needed for passage remains to be seen. Opponents say the bill inadequately addresses persistent security problems along the U.S.-Mexican border, makes it too easy for illegal immigrants and others to obtain green cards and U.S. citizenship, and will cost the federal government trillions of dollars in social services, health care and retirement benefits for millions of undocumented immigrants in the coming decades.

“I regret that last week this committee voted down each of the amendments that would have put real teeth in the border security provisions,” freshman Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., said yesterday.

But even if the measure clears the Senate, fierce opposition will await it in the GOP-controlled House, where many Republicans say the legislation is tantamount to “amnesty” for those who have repeatedly broken the law. 

 House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., recently outlined a cautious, “step-by-step” approach to immigration reform. It includes an e-verify system to help businesses identify perspective employees as well as a temporary agricultural worker program. Yesterday, six House Republicans – Reps. Steve King of Iowa, Louie Gohmert of Texas, Steve Stockman of Texas, John Fleming of Louisiana, Paul Gosar of Arizona, and Mo Brooks of Alabama announced their opposition to the Senate bill.

“We need to tear this thing up and start over,” Fleming said. “Let’s break it up into smaller bills and air it for the American public,” added Gosar. King, citing a controversial study by the Heritage Foundation on the cost of the bill’s amnesty provisions, warned that the bill would pose a massive drain on the federal coffers.

“You know how badly I despise Obamacare,” King added. But if he had to choose between accepting implementation of the Affordable Care Act and the Gang of Eight’s immigration legislation, “I would take Obamacare and try to live with it,” he said.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Judiciary Committee, declined to predict the future of the bill in the House, but noted that the House last February  passed a Senate bipartisan version of the Violence Against Women Act, 286-138, after failing to muster sufficient votes to pass a bill of its own. He said the House went along despite White House warnings that “maybe we should pull back.” Leahy said, “Maybe the same thing will happen with immigration”

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, a senior Republican on the Judiciary Committee who has yet to announce a position on the legislation, told The Fiscal Times that the Gang of Eight’s legislation would not necessarily be “dead on arrival” in the House if gang members were willing to make more concessions to address conservative members’ concerns.

“I think it may get out [of the Senate] and the question is will it have the support of people like me,” Hatch said. “It can, but they’re going to have to solve a lot of the problems that I think are glaringly apparent.” 

The proposed immigration reform bill would offer a path to citizenship for many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country today, but only after the government has ensured the borders are secure and illegal immigrants pay fines and wait for more than a decade to obtain citizenship. There would also be important changes in the visa laws for workers, including farm laborers.

The bill marks a golden opportunity for major bipartisan legislative success this year because of the eagerness of both parties to curry favor with Hispanic American voters. Senators Marco Rubio, R-Fla., Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y, and Richard Durbin, D-Ill., are leaders of the coalition pressing for the bill’s passage.

The coalition turned back the most significant GOP measures that would have required the government to build 700 miles of double-layered fencing and maintain complete operational control of the entire southern border before allowing illegal immigrants to gain citizenship. Leahy, Schumer and other champions of the reform bill dismissed the GOP proposal as a license to keep illegal immigrants in limbo by setting standards impossible to meet.

As originally drafted, the Gang of Eight bill focused resources on “high-risk” sectors of the border, where the Border Patrol captures 30,000 or more people every year.

Under the Grassley amendment approved last week, the Department of Homeland Security would require the Border Patrol to provide “persistent surveillance” and reach an “effectiveness rate” of 90 percent. This goal would have to be met before immigrants could begin applying for green cards. If it isn’t, a Southern Border Security Commission would be created to recommend to the president how to achieve border security goals. 

Yesterday, the committee voted 17 to 1 to reject a Sessions amendment to restrict the number of people eligible to enter the U.S. on green cards and work visas. The amendment would have capped the number of legal immigrants at 33 million over 10 years.  Even Cruz, a vocal opponent of the Gang of Eight bill, rejected the idea.  

“We need to remain a nation that not just welcomes, but celebrates legal immigrants,” said Cruz, who has been mentioned as a possible candidate for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.  “I think we should expand legal immigration but do so in conjunction with putting real teeth on border [enforcement].”