Amendment-Palooza: Judiciary Plows Through First 32 of Immigration Bill

WASHINGTON – Comprehensive immigration reform legislation survived the first phase of deliberation relatively unscathed but the process left several Republicans complaining that the measure still gives short shrift to enforcement.

The Senate Judiciary Committee plowed through 32 amendments in a 7 ½ hour mark-up session on the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act this week with further consideration and additional proposals still to come. About 300 amendments have been filed.

An amendment offered by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) to triple the size of the Border Patrol and quadruple equipment like cameras sensors, drones, and helicopters to enable continuous monitoring of the nation’s border with Mexico during the three-year period after the act’s passage was killed in a 13-5 vote, with three Republicans siding with all the panel’s Democrats.

The amendment would have prohibited the Department of Homeland Security from implementing most of the immigration reform provisions contained in the bill until his initiatives were substantially met. Cruz provided no funding for his plan. Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), one of the Republicans who developed the core legislation, estimated the Cruz amendment could cost as much as $40 billion.

Cruz said he wanted to “put real teeth in the border security elements.”

"As currently drafted, the bill is essentially a plan to plan for the Department of Homeland Security and it contains toothless metrics which, in my judgment, would render it a virtual certainty that if this bill were passed a few years hence we would be having yet more hearings discussing why the border is still not secure and the problem of illegal immigration remains,” he said.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said the bill already addresses border security concerns, noting that the measure spends as much as $6.5 billion on the issue to construct additional border fencing, hire more border agents and deploy more drones.

“This bill is, far and away, the strongest bill that has been put together that has a chance of passing in turns of stopping future flows of illegal immigration just on the border alone,” Schumer said, adding that the border “will effectively be closed with these expenditures and the way that they will be done.”

The committee also rejected an amendment by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the ranking member, which held most of the bill’s provisions in abeyance until the secretary of Homeland Security, a post currently held by Janet Napolitano, attests that the U.S. has maintained effective control of its borders for a period of six months. It died 12-6 with two Republicans joining with committee Democrats.

Grassley said the panel’s actions prove the measure places a priority on legalizing undocumented workers over border enforcement.

“I was disappointed that alliances seem to have been made to ensure that nothing passed that would make substantial changes and improvements to the bill,” Grassley said. “Many of those same people gave high praise to the amendments being offered but continued to vote against them. If people really want to secure the border, some additional changes need to be made.”

The immigration reform bill, the handiwork of a bipartisan group of senators known as the Gang of Eight, 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.

Employers would be required to implement the e-verify system to detect illegal workers. A new visa program for low-skilled workers would be developed and the Department of Homeland Security would be charged with developing a $4.5 billion plan to gain effective control of the porous Southern border with Mexico that halts at least 90 percent of those attempting to enter the country illegally.

The initial mark-up session had its testy moments. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a virulent foe of the legislation, called for a “rational system” that would “end the lawlessness…with clear rules where the rules are enforced.”

“While the sponsors of the legislation say their bill meets these goals, it does not,” he said. “It was crafted in secret, essentially, by a series of interest groups. Too little concern was expressed for the impact this huge increase in immigration would have on struggling American workers and families. With high unemployment, anemic job growth, and with unprecedented number of workers who have given up and dropped out of the labor force, we must be focusing more on getting jobs for lawful immigrants and Americans.”

Sessions said the bill “actually weakens enforcement requirements already on the books” and fails to demand that the fence along the southern border be completed.

Eventually, Sessions said, the new law would lead to 30 million immigrants being granted legal status, a situation that will “pull down wages and further marginalize the millions of Americans who have been trapped in poverty.”

Schumer disputed the Sessions claims, saying most of those expected to seek legal status “are already here.”

“I await your amendment on what we do with the people who are not here legally now, okay?” he told Sessions.

The problems grow exponentially, Schumer said, if Congress fails to act.

“If the economy goes very well here and the economy goes very badly in Mexico and we do nothing the number of illegal immigrants will increase and could be far beyond what this bill is,” Schumer said. “So again, my main point here is this, the system is broken. To simply point to who we allow to work here and who we allow to come here does not take into account who would be coming here and be allowed to work here if we do nothing.”

The debate continues on May 14.