GOP Sens. Corker, Hoeven Throw Lifeline to Group of Eight

WASHINGTON – A compromise brokered by two Republicans that will further enhance the border security efforts contained in the proposed immigration reform package appears to be easing the legislation’s way toward passage.

The amendment is the work of Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.). It has received the blessing of the so-called Gang of Eight – a bipartisan group that pieced together the fragile reform effort – and essentially displaces an amendment offered by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), which Democrats described as a poison pill.

Hoeven said the proposal will add “more manpower, more fencing, more technology” to the effort to reduce illegal immigration, particularly along the nation’s southern border with Mexico.

“It is a very straightforward way to secure our border and to do so before allowing a pathway to legal permanent residency for those who came here illegally,” Hoeven said. “Simply put, we must secure the border first. That’s what Americans demand, and that’s what we must do to get comprehensive immigration reform right. That’s what this legislation does and it does it with objective and verifiable metrics.”

As currently constituted, the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 addresses border issues by requiring the Department of Homeland Security to provide Congress with a $4.5 billion plan to maintain persistent surveillance along the border that would have to 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.

Senate critics of the bill asserted that the provision didn’t go far enough to protect the borders, creating the perception that the measure couldn’t gain the 60 votes necessary for passage.

The Corker-Hoeven amendment adds 20,000 border agents, almost doubling the current number. It also requires the U.S. to complete an additional 700 miles of fencing along the southern border and add another entry-exit point, bringing the total to 330. The proposal also funds a drone program to increase surveillance.

Funding for the additional border agents is expected to total about $30 billion. The money is expected to come from savings anticipated by adoption of the reform measure. The Congressional Budget Office estimated earlier this week that the bill would reduce the federal deficit by almost $200 billion over the next 10 years, providing supporters with some wiggle room.

The amendment requires that all these conditions be met before any of the estimated 11 million undocumented workers can seek permanent resident status. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, of Nevada, said that he is willing to “look at any reasonable amendment” to get the bill, which carries the support of President Obama, passed.

Several Republicans who were either on the fence or opposed to the measure now indicate they can vote for the bill if the amendment is included. In addition to Corker and Hoeven, Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) has said he will go along. That could provide proponents with the necessary margin.

The Corker-Hoeven proposal basically supplants the amendment offered by Cornyn, which carried the support of many lawmakers who sought stricter border security measures in the reform bill but failed to generate sufficient backing to pass. That measure, known as the Requiring Enforcement, Security and safety while Upgrading Lawful Trade and travel Simultaneously (RESULTS) Amendment, would have prohibited undocumented immigrants already in the country from obtaining any sort of legal permanent residency until 98 percent of all illegal crossings are thwarted.

Cornyn immediately questioned the compromise, raising questions about the cost, telling fellow lawmakers that to his “shock and amazement” the Corker-Hoeven amendment adds border agents after being told that the additional agents included in his amendment weren’t necessary.

"My amendment was disparaged by the distinguished senior senator from Arizona and the distinguished senior senator from New York as being a budget buster, 5,000 border patrol. I was told we don't need more boots, we need technology," Cornyn said on the floor. "...How much is it going to cost? That's the question."

Hoeven thanked Cornyn for "a great example of how we built on the foundation you laid."

"You asked for, what was it, 5,000 border patrol agents, and we got 20,000. So this is a great example, and it is all paid for because remember, now this is important," Hoeven continued.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which opposes the legislation, characterized the amendment as “utterly phony.”

“Their proposal would leave the basic, flawed architecture of the bill in place, amnestying the illegal population up front and promising more enforcement in the future,” Krikorian said.

The non-security part of the legislation holds that illegal immigrants who have resided within the nation’s borders since Dec. 13, 2011, must seek provisional legal status, allowing them to work in the U.S. It prohibits those in the country on work visas from collecting any 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 also be developed.