WASHINGTON – Proponents of immigration reform are aiming to attract 70 votes when the issue hits the floor, but that hope may be dimming as some prominent supporters appear to be backtracking on their earlier commitments.
The chief defector could be Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the Gang of Eight who pieced together the legislation. Rubio, a potential candidate for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, recently indicated he’s not satisfied with the bill’s border security provisions and won’t vote for it unless significant changes are made during the amendment process.
“And so there’s a handful of Democrats, and a sizeable number of Republicans that are saying to us we’re prepared to do immigration reform, but we have to make sure there isn’t another wave of illegal immigration,” Rubio said June 4 on Hugh Hewitt’s radio program. “So for those who want immigration reform, the task is very simple. Let’s strengthen the border security parts of this bill so that they’re stronger, so that they don’t give overwhelming discretion to the Department of Homeland Security, and I think if we can do that, then you’re going to be able to get something done. But if you can’t, it’s not going to happen.”
Rubio’s apparent retreat is somewhat surprising since the security provisions contained in the legislation were actually strengthened before it emerged from the Senate Judiciary Committee last month. Rubio has served as both the face and the voice pushing the bipartisan immigration reform proposal.
In a letter to Arizona Attorney General Tom Horne, who also questioned the bill’s security provisions, the state’s two Republican senators, John McCain and Jeff Flake, both members of the Gang of Eight, assured that necessary steps have been taken to bolster the border.
Under the bill, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security would be required to provide Congress with a plan to maintain persistent surveillance along the border that would stop more than 90 percent of illegal entries. The department furthermore would be required to report to Congress on how effectively it is implementing its plan, any impediments to fulfilling the plan, and what actions it will take to address such impediments.
“We agree that this administration has left much to be desired with regards to securing the border,” the two lawmakers said. “This is the reason why, rather than relying on the subjective interpretation of any elected bureaucrat, we developed an approach to border security that would be based on objective metrics to provide empirical data to determine the level of security along the border, a strategic plan that will allow Congress to hold DHS accountable to doing so, and an unprecedented amount of resources dedicated to that very effort.”
Regardless, Rubio’s withdrawal, if it comes to that, can’t be good for the bill’s future. His earlier support could provide cover for other lawmakers who are on the fence to oppose the measure.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who maintains he supports immigration reform and whose vote has been targeted by the bill’s proponents, also claims the measure’s enforcement provisions are too weak. He will oppose it on the floor unless changes are made.
Speaking to Newsmax, Portman asserted that the last time Congress adopted an omnibus immigration reform measure – the Simpson-Mazzoli Act of 1986 – the nation “did not enforce the law either at the border or internally.”
Portman also is looking at changes to strengthen E-Verify, the computerized system employed to determine if a potential worker is in the country legally. Employers are not required to access E-Verify under the bill headed to the floor. The lawmaker told Newsmax that a robust E-Verify system is essential.
“We need to be sure that we’re not moving ahead with the legal status of some kind for people who are here without putting enforcement in place, and that’s something I’ll be working on on the floor of the Senate,” Portman told Newsmax.
The Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, as it currently stands, creates a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants who entered or remained in the country without proper documentation.
Under the bill, illegal immigrants who have resided in the U.S. since Dec. 13, 2011, must seek provisional legal status that allows them to work but renders them ineligible for federal benefits. They must pay a penalty, taxes, and a processing fee and can only apply for permanent status after 10 years.
A new visa program for low-skilled workers would be developed and the Department of Homeland Security would be charged with coming up with a $4.5 billion plan to gain effective control of the porous Southern border with Mexico.
Rubio isn’t alone in expressing doubts about the legislation. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who voted for the bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee, also said changes will need to be made before he can vote for it on the floor. Hatch, a key target for the bill’s proponents, has pledged to push several amendments intended to protect taxpayers from picking up the tab on illegal immigrants taking advantage of the nation’s social services.
“This bill needs more improvement before I’m ready to vote for it when the full Senate takes it up,” Hatch said. “I introduced a number of common-sense amendments that ensure American taxpayers aren’t on the hook for those wanting to become American citizens. It’s my hope we can add these amendments to what passes the Judiciary Committee today, and come up with a bill that myself, many of my colleagues, and the American people can support.”
Hatch intends to offer an amendment requiring undocumented immigrants to produce employment papers establishing that they have been paying the proper amount in federal taxes. Those who have shortchanged the government will be given an opportunity to pay back taxes. Those who fail will be denied an opportunity to take advantage of the path to citizenship.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who has expressed some support for immigration reform, intends to offer a laundry list of amendments even though several of them might serve as a poison pill for Democratic supporters of the measure.
Under what he is characterizing as his “trust but verify” amendment, Paul proposes that reform be conditioned first on Congress determining that the border is secure and that a border fence be completed within five years. The amendment also would provide new national security safeguards to track the holders of student visas and those provided asylum and refugee status.
Paul further intends to offer amendments that ensure that those in the country on work visas are prohibited from voting or gaining access to various social welfare programs, including Obamacare.
Some lawmakers, mostly conservatives, will oppose the legislation regardless of any changes rendered. Four of them – Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Ted Cruz, (R-Texas), Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Mike Lee (R-Utah) — distributed a “Dear Colleague” letter on June 4 to rally opposition.
“Americans expect their government to end the lawlessness, not surrender to it,” the letter read. “They deserve immigration reform with actual border security, enforcement of the laws on the books and a legal immigration system that works. We must welcome and celebrate legal immigrants, but S. 744 fails to deliver anything more than the same empty promises Washington has been making for 30 years.”
The last thing this country needs, the congressional quartet said, “is another 1,000-plus page bill that, like Obamacare, was negotiated behind closed doors with special interests. We want immigration reform to pass, but only if it actually fixes the broken system, rather than allowing the problems to grow and fester.”
The senators maintained the bill, among other things, provides for a form of immediate legalization for undocumented workers without first securing the border. It also “contains extremely dangerous national security loopholes,” creates no real penalties for illegal aliens and delays implementation of E-Verify.