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It's Zero Hour for Senate Immigration Bill

It's Zero Hour for Senate Immigration Bill

By Caitlin Huey-Burns - June 10, 2013

The most sweeping overhaul of the nation's immigration system in nearly three decades finally arrives on the Senate floor this week.

Leaders in the upper chamber are aiming for passage by July 4 of a measure that would open up a road to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants living in the United States. A bipartisan group of four Democrats and four Republicans spent several months crafting the bill, and the Senate Judiciary Committee put the finishing touches on it last month.

But with zero hour at hand, the fate of reform legislation is uncertain.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio helped write the bill, but now says he will not vote for it unless border security provisions are strengthened. Many lawmakers share his view, and will offer amendments. But as with any bill of this magnitude, proposed changes can either help the measure swim -- or drown it.

RealClearPolitics examines where the measure goes from here, and what its passage (or failure) means for Congress and the White House.

What is the goal of reform?

Democrats have been pledging to pass immigration reform for years, but haven’t been able -- or willing -- to deliver. As he began his second term, President Obama called for a comprehensive bill that included a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States. Senate Democrats, though, have been concerned that any legislation with the president’s fingerprints on it would turn off their Republican colleagues. For Democrats, the opportunity for citizenship is the pillar of reform. They have agreed that citizenship must be conditioned upon a more secure border, but they want to make sure those provisions aren’t so stringent that they make access to a green card unattainable.

Republicans generally see the passage of a reform bill as a gateway to Latino voters, whose lack of support for GOP presidential candidates has played a role in Democratic wins the last two elections. But not all party members  share this goal. There is little appetite among House Republicans for one comprehensive bill, and the citizenship provisions will be particularly contentious for lawmakers who fear reprising the amnesty law of the 1980s. 

What is in the bill?

The centerpiece is a 13-year pathway to citizenship that would begin roughly six months after the law is enacted. During those six months, the Department of Homeland Security would evaluate whether border security benchmarks mandated by the bill are being met. If the answer is yes, illegal immigrants would then be granted legal status and be able to work lawfully in the United States. They would have to pay fines and back taxes and would have to wait 10 years before applying for a green card. During this time, they would not be eligible for subsidies for the federal health care plan or for welfare and entitlement programs like Medicaid. The law mandates that employers use the E-Verify background check system to validate the status of immigrant employees. There would also be new provisions on high-tech and low-skilled worker visas.

If the DHS determines that border security benchmarks are not being met, the above steps cannot be triggered.

What kind of amendments will we see?

Among the most contentious provisions are the border security requirements. Many Republican lawmakers, including Rubio, aren’t convinced that the current measures are tough enough. Texas Sen. John Cornyn, for example, will put forth an amendment that would mandate monitoring of 100 percent of the southern U.S. border and an apprehension rate of at least 90 percent of those crossing illegally; installation of a biometric exit tracking system; and implementation of E-Verify nationwidel before illegal immigrants can be eligible for citizenship.

Rubio has also said that many lawmakers on his side of the aisle simply do not trust the administration to implement such enforcement provisions, even if they were to pass. The Florida senator is proposing that Congress, instead of DHS, be responsible for formulating the border strategy regulations.

In addition, Joe Manchin, who is among the most conservative Democrats in the Senate, has said he will propose an amendment requiring the children of undocumented immigrants to obtain a college degree or serve in the military before they can be eligible for citizenship. Some of the more liberal Democrats may push for same-sex couples to be covered by the law. (Judiciary Chairman Pat Leahy dropped this amendment from the bill during the committee markup out of concern that it would prevent passage.)

Conventional wisdom has it that the GOP lost the Hispanic vote so badly in 2012 that it is in the party’s self-interest to pass reform. Do Republicans agree?

South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham told reporters last week that his party will pay a heavy price for a failure to act. If Congress “cannot pass immigration reform in 2013 -- and it’s the Republican Party’s fault -- we’re dead in 2016,” he said.

Many Republicans shared that concern earlier this year when the reform effort got underway. Arizona’s John McCain said at the time he and other members of the so-called Gang of Eight released the framework for their bill that the climate on Capitol Hill had changed since a failed 2007 reform effort, largely because of the past two presidential elections.

But several months have passed since then, and many lawmakers, particularly those in the House, are starting to make the 2014 midterms their priority. And lagging Latino support in national elections doesn’t necessarily translate to congressional districts. While many House Republicans say they want to fix a broken immigration system, the imperative to pass a comprehensive bill this year isn’t as strong in the lower chambers as it is among national party leaders.

What are Republicans afraid of?

Two negative possibilities occur to Republicans -- one political, and the other a policy matter. First, with Latinos and Asians breaking heavily for Democrats in the last two national elections, some GOP strategists worry about the effects of minting 11 million citizens whose demographic profile seems to benefit Democrats.

On the policy side, many recall the bill Ronald Reagan signed into law in 1986, which automatically legalized 3 million undocumented immigrants. The worry here is that that law did not stem the flow of illegal immigration, and that two decades from now lawmakers will be looking at the same issue again, though with perhaps 30 million undocumented immigrants in the country.

“I don't think there's a trust . . . in the administration to enforce the current laws that are on the books as they relate to much of immigration. And not just this administration -- it has been previous administrations as well,” Rep. Tom Price, a Georgia Republican, told reporters last week at a breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. “The first step in regaining that trust is living up to the promise that was made to the nation back in 1986, and that is controlling and securing the border.”

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Caitlin Huey-Burns is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurnsRCP.

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