The immigration revisions that a bipartisan Senate group unveils soon will hinge on a Republican demand: making a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented in the U.S. contingent on a measurable boost in border security.
While trying to reconnect with a growing Hispanic electorate that has turned Democratic in voting, Republican lawmakers remain mindful of those within their party who rally around candidates campaigning against undocumented immigration. They will try to find that balance in legislation that eight senators of both parties plan to propose this week, followed by a plan that a bipartisan House group is writing.
Republicans, cautious not to alienate their political base, want to demonstrate that they’re “tough on border security,” said Bruce Altschuler, a political scientist at the State University of New York at Oswego. “They need something in the legislation that will protect their right flank.”
The Senate group’s plan will provide more Border Patrol agents, improved infrastructure such as radio networks, and increased surveillance by unmanned aerial drones. The legislation will propose a commission of state and local officials from states bordering Mexico to monitor progress of these measures and advise the Department of Homeland Security, according to principles the Senate group released in January.
“A 90 percent effective border control is really an important criteria,” Arizona Senator John McCain, a Republican member of the Senate group, said in a March 22 interview with Bloomberg Television. “There is a commitment on the part of all members not only to spend more on the border and expand the fences, but to use the technology that -- if there’s anything good that came out of Iraq and Afghanistan -- it’s this dramatically improved surveillance capabilities we have.”
The push to rewrite U.S. immigration law is the first major effort since 2007. Republican opposition to providing a citizenship path has declined since November’s election, when President Barack Obama won 71 percent of Hispanic votes cast. Republican leaders say the party needs to do more to court the fast-growing voter bloc.
An increase in border security could serve as a trigger allowing some of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. to move toward citizenship. How to measure improved security will be a contentious element of the congressional debate, said Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a federation of state-based business groups that advocate rewriting immigration laws.
“That trigger is going to be very important to Republican lawmakers,” Jacoby said, describing it as the political trade that Republicans will make for supporting a citizenship path.
While the Senate group and Obama administration say the undocumented should pass criminal background checks and pay back taxes and fines before becoming citizens, the administration has questioned linking border security.
“I think that once people really look at the whole system and how it works, relying on one thing as a so-called trigger is not the way to go,” Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said at a March 26 breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. “There needs to be certainty in the bill so that people know when they can legalize and then when a pathway to citizenship, earned citizenship would open up.”
The government already is deporting many who entered the U.S. illegally. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported 396,906 people in fiscal year 2011 and a record 409,849 in fiscal 2012, according to figures released by the agency, a part of the Department of Homeland Security.
Still, lawmakers question the effectiveness of border protection that has enabled millions to enter the U.S. without papers or remain in the country after visas have expired.
“When I hear Napolitano and others say our borders are secure, it makes me kind of squeamish because it’s not true,” said Representative Raul Labrador, an Idaho Republican elected in 2010 with Tea Party backing and an immigration lawyer.
“There are certain triggers that we need to be able to meet before anybody receives” a new legal status, said Labrador, a member of the bipartisan House group preparing its own immigration proposal.
The last major immigration revision, signed by 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 immigrants.
“A lot of Republicans are thinking about border security as the way to not have to do this again in five years or 10 years,” Jacoby said. “In the Republican-controlled House, people are going to be even more concerned not to repeat the mistake.”
The Senate proposal also will require businesses to electronically verify that employees are in the country legally and impose fines and criminal penalties on those who knowingly hire people not authorized to be in the country.
About 40 percent of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. overstayed visas rather than illegally crossing the border.
Two Democratic members of the Senate group -- New York’s Charles Schumer and Colorado’s Michael Bennet -- accompanied Jeff Flake, Arizona’s other Republican senator, on a March 27 tour of a portion of Arizona’s border with Mexico. McCain and Flake are members of the Senate group and have been outspoken about the need for more resources at the border.
Schumer, the Senate’s third-ranking Democrat, told reporters following the tour that the trip convinced him that federal border agents “have adequate manpower but not adequate technology.” Yet he stressed the need for an “effective but also cost-effective” approach.
During the tour, McCain posted on his Twitter account that the group witnessed a woman “a few yards away” climbing an 18- foot security fence to enter the U.S. He also reported that agents apprehended the woman.
“Most of the people who jump over the fence are doing it because they want a better life, and I understand that,” McCain later told reporters. He added that part of the group’s aim is to provide better legal options for such people.
Senators of both parties have raised concern about the cost of ramping up border security. Schumer said following the border tour that the Senate group’s proposal would have to add no costs to the federal budget. Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican member of the group, said April 4 he would carefully review a Congressional Budget Office analysis of the Senate plan’s costs when it’s available.
In the absence of federal action, about one-third of states have enacted an electronic verification requirement for at least some business owners. Arizona in 2010 enacted a law making it a crime not to carry immigration documents and granting law enforcement police broad power to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally.
The Supreme Court last year overturned most of the law.
“It’s been a period of enforcement, but a lot of the enforcement measures were passed in states,” Jacoby said.
Among Republican leaders, the search for a national solution is motivated by a slipping hold on Hispanic voters.
“Republicans are in a bind,” Altschuler said. “They’re desperate to pass some sort of immigration reform so they can say to Latino voters, ‘We’ve done this. Let’s look at other issues.’”
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