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As Senate takes up immigration reform, land mines lurk

The legislation faces an array of challenges that could upset the delicate balance achieved by its bipartisan team of authors.

June 08, 2013|By Lisa Mascaro and Brian Bennett, Washington Bureau
  • Sen. John Cornyn of Texas is just the type of Republican the immigration bill's authors want on their side. He's a border-state senator who's familiar with the problems of the immigration system.
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas is just the type of Republican the immigration… (J. Scott Applewhite, Associated…)

WASHINGTON — Sen. Charles E. Schumer, awakened from a nap in his office, bounded to the Senate floor, staff in tow. It was approaching 2 a.m. The New Yorker joined fellow Democratic Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, who was presiding wearily over an almost empty chamber.

The two senators and six others, Republicans and Democrats, had finished writing the most comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws in a generation. Now the bill was ready to be introduced.

"I would like to thank everybody ... who worked so hard on this great legislation whose voyage begins now," Schumer said.

On the marble stairs outside the chamber, the senators and bleary-eyed staff who had brokered the deal gathered around. They gave a thumbs-up. It was a picture-perfect moment.

That unity will be tested this week as the Senate opens debate on the historic bill and the eight senators face the sobering task of bringing more colleagues on board.

Immigration reform has eluded Congress in the decades since President Reagan signed the last substantial overhaul. But this time may be different. Top Republicans have begun to join Democrats in supporting a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally.

With a vote to start debate set for Tuesday, the legislation faces a gantlet of amendments that could attract needed Republicans or upset the delicate balance celebrated that night on the Senate steps.

"Look, I always thought there were land mines along here, and you just got to go through them," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who led the last failed attempt at immigration reform and is one of the key players in this one. "It's not a smooth path."

The bill has so far threaded past those land mines. How the bill's authors handled them illustrates their determination to succeed as well as the risks that they could fail.

Border security has long been a partisan battleground.

Republicans want an impermeable southern border to prevent illegal entries; Democrats view that as an unrealistic goal that will stall other changes, including the path to citizenship for those lacking proper papers.

One crucial Republican in the bipartisan group, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, has never been completely satisfied with the border security agreement he worked out with the other senators.

The night before the bill was introduced in April, Rubio and his staff met with an influential critic. Chris Crane, president of the National Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council, a federal immigration and customs officers union, was told to come alone.

As written, the legislation provides $4.5 billion for more drones, 3,500 customs officers and a double-layer fence in some areas along the border, with the goal of stopping 90% of illegal entries. Once the plan is in place, immigrants who pay fines, work and learn English will be eligible in 10 years for permanent legal status. After 13 years, they can become citizens.

Crane had blasted the senators for not consulting his union. He believed the deal was riddled with loopholes that would prevent agents from deporting immigrants in the country unlawfully.

In Rubio's office, along with a handful of staffers and Rubio, Crane argued for an enhanced exit system with biometric screening, such as checking the fingerprints of foreign travelers. About 40% of those in the country illegally stayed on expired visas.

Rubio mentioned that his fingerprints are scanned when he visits Disney World.

At Rubio's urging, the Judiciary Committee added a provision that would launch a pilot biometric exit program at 30 of the nation's busiest airports.

Senators are now seriously considering a proposal from Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) to expand the exit system to all airports; opponents point out that the cost would be enormous.

Cornyn is just the type of Republican the bill's authors want to bring on board. He's a border-state senator familiar with the problems of the immigration system and sensitive to the growing Latino electorate. The chamber's No. 2 Republican, he would provide momentum not just in the Senate, but in the House, where the conservative majority has been cool to the effort.

But some Democrats wonder if Cornyn is just dangling the possibility of support. He wants an additional $1 billion a year for more drones, 10,000 officers and other equipment. That is a nonstarter for Democrats and raises alarms for deficit hawks.

"It's such an un-Republican idea to throw money at a problem," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of the bill's authors. "We're not going to be able to add billions and billions of dollars in cost unless you can justify and find a way to pay for it."

In exchange for the path to citizenship, deals were cut to stem future illegal immigration by dramatically expanding guest-worker programs, including for farm laborers and highly skilled professionals.

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