'The Devil Is in the Details' on Bipartisan Immigration Reform

In a last-minute schedule update, President Obama penciled in a meeting today with police chiefs and sheriffs to talk about his topic of the hour: gun control.

“We recognize that this is an issue that elicits a lot of passion all across the country. And Joe and my Cabinet members who have been involved in this have been on a listening session over the last several months. No group is more important for us to listen to than our law enforcement officials,” Obama said. “They are where the rubber hits the road.”

But Congress managed to steal his thunder by turning to another issue that ignites passionate debate — one that Obama promised to deal with in his first term but left unresolved.

And far from being a surefire gotcha issue for Republicans, the comprehensive immigration reform framework rolled out today at a Senate press conference threatens to drive a wedge into a party that’s trying to find its footing on the road back to the White House.

Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he and the rest of the Gang of Eight — Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Lindsey Graham (R-Ariz.), and Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) — hope to turn their “set of bipartisan principles” into legislation by March with the goal of passage by mid-year.

“The key to our compromise is to recognize that Americans overwhelming oppose illegal immigration, and support legal immigration,” Schumer said. From there, they based the framework on four “pillars”: “a tough, but fair path to citizenship for illegal immigrants currently living in the United States that is contingent upon securing our borders,” unspecified reforms of the immigration legal system, creating an “effective employment verification system, that will prevent identity theft, and end the hiring of future unauthorized workers,” and admitting workers “to serve our nation’s workforce needs, while simultaneously protecting all workers.”

“The politics on this issue have been turned upside down. For the first time ever, there is more political risk in opposing immigration reform than in supporting it,” Schumer said. “…By their presence today, my Republican colleagues are making a significant statement about the need to fix our broken immigration system. We Democrats are equally serious.”

Perhaps to keep viewers tuned in to the full length of the news conference, the senators present spoke in turn and saved Rubio for last.

“I see immigration every single day. I see the good of immigration. I see how important it is for our future,” the Florida Republican said. “…By the same token, I see the negative that illegal immigration has been for our country, and the problems that it causes.”

He called the millions of illegal immigrants in the country today “not something that anyone is happy about, that’s not something that anyone wanted to see happen, but that is what happened.”

“I think today is an important first step in what’s going to be a significantly — a significant complicated journey. Because, the issue of immigration is not a simple one. But I think we have the opportunity to do it right. And if we do, I think we’ll do a tremendous service to our country and our future,” Rubio said.

The only freshman in the Group of Eight, Flake, wasn’t at the press conference. Serving in McCain’s border state, the former House member won the seat vacated by retiring Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.).

“While there are still many details to be worked out, I recognize that in order to address the many facets of immigration reform, it’s going to take a bipartisan commitment. Yes, ‘the devil’s in the details,’ and not everyone is going to like everything, but sitting idly by is not a responsible approach,” said Flake.

“I have always insisted that any reform plan not include a blanket amnesty and these principles reflect that,” he added. “I’m also particularly pleased that there is bipartisan support to include the input of border communities. Not only will security be strengthened according to Washington, DC, but border communities will have a say as well.”

Graham, still serving on reserve duty in Afghanistan but no stranger to bipartisan immigration reform efforts, said in a statement, “I hope the third time is the charm.”

“The bipartisan immigration principles represent a real breakthrough on substance and I hope they will be seen as a breakthrough in forming a political coalition to finally solve our immigration problems,” Graham said. “The coalition must also include the president and the House of Representatives.”

The president is scheduled to lay out his vision in a Las Vegas speech tomorrow. House Republicans were decidedly mixed on the effort.

“No one should be surprised that individuals who have supported amnesty in the past still support amnesty. When you legalize those who are in the country illegally, it costs taxpayers millions of dollars, costs American workers thousands of jobs and encourages more illegal immigration,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas). “By granting amnesty, the Senate proposal actually compounds the problem by encouraging more illegal immigration.”

“The Senate group laid out some principles today, and the president will do the same tomorrow. But the devil is in the details. I want to see actual legislation and assess the intended and unintended consequences of the policies,” said Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), author of the 2005 bill H.R. 4437 that sparked massive protests over immigration policy. “Extending amnesty to those who came here illegally or overstayed their visas is dangerous waters. We are a nation of laws, and I will evaluate any proposal through that matrix.”

“They have 52 more Senators and 218 House Members to convince after they put their plan on paper in the form of a bill. I agree with most of the language in the very broad guidelines,” said Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa). “…The president has demonstrated he will only enforce the laws that he likes. Promises of future law enforcement made under the 1986 Amnesty Act were not adequately kept by President Reagan. Why, then, would Americans accept the promise of this president?”

Democrats said they also want to see the details in print, but expressed optimism that a plan was in the early stages of moving forward.

“The Senate’s bipartisan set of principles is a positive step toward achieving needed immigration reform,” said Rep. Gloria Negrete McLeod (D-Calif.). “President Obama expressed that comprehensive immigration reform, including an earned pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, be a top legislative priority.”

“While the details of this legislation still need to be worked out, it is encouraging that both Democrats and Republicans can finally come together and work towards fixing a broken immigration system,” McLeod added. “I look forward to hearing what the president has to say.”

“Our nation’s immigration system hasn’t been updated in over 25 years, and it is well past time to overhaul our laws to make them more effective, humane, and to improve our nation’s economic competitiveness while safeguarding our security,” Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said. “I stand ready to work with my colleagues as this process moves forward.”

Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) repeated the catchphrase of the day among right and left: “There are details that still need to be worked out,” she said on MSNBC. “I think that it’s definitely a sign of positive things to come. I mean, the devil is always in the details.”

The framework expresses the need to provide the Border Patrol with more technology and personnel, as well as strengthening “prohibitions against racial profiling and inappropriate use of force” by agents. It would also require completion of an entry-exit system tracking people here on temporary visas.

Illegal immigrants would have to register with government, pass a background check, pay a fine and back taxes to earn probationary legal status. Those already waiting legally for a green card at the time the legislation is passed would all have to have their requests processed before anyone here illegally can have their residency request processed.

“Individuals who entered the United States as minor children did not knowingly choose to violate any immigration laws,” the framework states. “Consequently, under our proposal these individuals will not face the same requirements as other individuals in order to earn a path to citizenship.”

“Similarly, individuals who have been working without legal status in the United States agricultural industry have been performing very important and difficult work to maintain America’s food supply while earning subsistence wages. Due to the utmost importance in our nation maintaining the safety of its food supply, agricultural workers who commit to the long term stability of our nation’s agricultural industries will be treated differently than the rest of the undocumented population because of the role they play in ensuring that Americans have safe and secure agricultural products to sell and consume. These individuals will earn a path to citizenship through a different process under our new agricultural worker program.”