For the premiere hearing on a proposed revision of immigration laws, taking place today in the U.S. Senate, the bill’s advocates made a strategic decision about who would testify first: Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
The reason: Border security benchmarks that the proposal sets as a pre-condition for providing 11 million undocumented immigrants an opportunity to become citizens are under scrutiny by both those concerned they’re too weak and those who want to ensure they’re not too stringent.
Satisfying such concerns will be essential to preserving a delicate bipartisan coalition that’s formed around the latest attempt to overhaul immigration laws. The Republican Party is split over whether allowing citizenship for the undocumented rewards lawbreakers and undercuts U.S. workers, while Democratic lawmakers and immigrant advocacy groups are skeptical about the border security aspects.
“One of the things I am going to look closely at in this bill is just what they are doing on border security,” Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, said yesterday heading into a closed-door briefing on the measure. “I see some things in there about building more fences and walls. I don’t know what that’s all about. That could be very disturbing for me.”
The product of months of negotiations between four Republican and four Democratic senators, the plan unveiled this week attempts to strike a balance: provide the path to citizenship that Democrats insist must be part of any broad rewrite and tie it to enough border security enhancements to satisfy Republicans.
Beyond those issues, the bill’s authors have other negotiated sections that are critical to maintain. They include a deal struck between the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor group, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the biggest business association, on a low-skilled guest worker program, as well as an accord between farm workers and agricultural businesses on revisions to the visa program for fruit and vegetable harvesters.
The response thus far is positive, with support expressed from immigrant advocacy groups, labor unions, business lobbying organizations and a swath of senators from both parties. President Barack Obama, who has made revising immigration policy one of his main second-term goals, earlier this week called the Senate measure “largely consistent” with his views.
Yet the proposal’s authors say keeping various constituencies on board as the legislation moves through the Senate Judiciary Committee and to the chamber’s floor will be difficult.
“That’s tricky,” Senator Richard Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who helped write the proposal, said yesterday. “It’s a delicate balance.”
That process begins today when Napolitano testifies before the Judiciary panel. The administration has been skeptical about making the citizenship path contingent on border security enhancements. Napolitano said yesterday at an unrelated hearing on Capitol Hill that it appeared the Senate plan took a “very reasonable approach to border security.”
The committee is scheduled to hold another hearing on the immigration plan April 22 and could begin amending the measure the week of May 6. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, has pledged to bring the bill to the Senate floor “no later than June,” New York Senator Charles Schumer, another Democratic member of the group, said yesterday.
Democratic leaders have said they will allow a vigorous amendment process, both in the committee and on the floor, so lawmakers will have opportunities to alter the bill.
The eight senators who wrote the proposal have said they will fight any change that could scuttle it.
“If you have a better idea, bring it on, but if you want to kill it, we’re going to have a talk about that,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and another member of the group crafting the bill, said yesterday.
Democratic senators, including Schumer, met privately April 17 with representatives of pro-immigration advocacy groups and aligned organizations to hear their feedback and urge their support.
Attendees raised questions about whether border security triggers were so stringent that they would prevent people from becoming citizens and about the effectiveness of racial- profiling prohibitions in the bill, said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a Washington-based immigrant advocacy group.
‘Moving Goal Posts’
“The concerns are that at some point it gets manipulated and politicized in a way that we have moving goal posts,” Sharry said. “We’ve seen it before and so that’s where our skepticism comes from.”
The Senate plan allows undocumented immigrants who pay at least $2,000 in fines and meet other criteria to apply for citizenship after more than a decade in the U.S., though only if specific border security benchmarks are reached.
The plan for securing the border must, within five years, result in an apprehension rate of at least 90 percent in “high- risk” sectors where more than 30,000 people are caught a year. If that rate isn’t met, the proposal would establish a commission of border-state officials and border-security experts to recommend ways to achieve the 90 percent goal.
The proposal also would authorize $1.5 billion to build additional fencing and make other infrastructure improvements along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Sharry said it would be a “huge problem” if Republicans add new prerequisites for individuals becoming citizens.
Building additional border fencing sets the wrong image for the U.S., costs too much, and is “not going to do any good,” Harkin said. “What an image for America: You’re going to build walls around us?”
On the Republican side, Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions and Texas Senator John Cornyn are among the lawmakers saying they aren’t convinced the bill’s border security aspects will do enough to stop illegal crossings.
Sessions said yesterday in an interview that he is seeking assurances that more fencing will be built.
“There’s no confidence that it will happen,” Sessions said, adding that he “and others would offer some amendments.”
Republican Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina said yesterday he still has “a lot of unanswered questions” about the bill’s border security aspects, which he termed “incredibly important” to him in deciding whether to back the measure.
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