Immigration ‘Gang of 8’ Pats Itself on the Back

Posted April 18, 2013 at 5:17pm

In a jovial, almost giddy news conference Thursday, the bipartisan group of eight senators behind a comprehensive immigration bill formally introduced their proposal and expressed great confidence that they would succeed in steering it to the president’s desk.

That ebullience, however, belied the hints of filibuster coming from staunch immigration overhaul opponents, who held their own news conference in an apparent attempt to blunt the impact of the unveiling by the “gang of eight.”

The events took place only hours after the collapse of the Senate’s gun control bill, and the shadow of that legislative failure hung in the air. But Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., a driving force behind both the gun and the immigration efforts, said the latter would not face the same fate.

Indeed, the bipartisan group — flanked by 21 business and labor officials, religious leaders, representatives of liberal and conservative policy groups and immigration activists — said the bill represents one of Congress’ best chances to pass meaningful bipartisan legislation.

At stake, the senators said, is not only the future of American immigration policy but also Congress’ ability to shepherd significant legislation through an increasingly dysfunctional legislative branch.

“Outside forces have helped defeat certain other initiatives in Washington, but on immigration, the opposite is proving true,” Schumer said, gesturing to the activists and leaders arrayed behind him.

“In a week when disillusionment with politics is being acutely felt, this bipartisan breakthrough offers a degree of hope,” he said. “The bill is proof the art of political compromise is not dead.”

Responding to fellow Republicans who accused the group of working in secret, the GOP senators in the group said they would welcome amendments during the Senate Judiciary Committee’s markup, even though they would oppose changes designed to gut the bill. The committee has scheduled two hearings and plans to hold markup votes in the first week of May, Schumer said. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will bring it up on the Senate floor by June, he said.

Addressing the tea party supporters who helped elect him to the Senate in 2010, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said, “Both Republican and Democrats have failed to enforce the law, and as a result, we do have millions of people that are here against our immigration laws, but we’re not going to deport them. … We all wish we didn’t have this problem, but we do.”

The bill would put most of the 11 million people living in the country illegally on a 13-year path to citizenship, provided the government improves border security, puts in place an employment verification system and upgrades its entry-exit systems at airports and seaports.

Immigrants would have to jump through a number of hoops to obtain legal status, including paying fines, fees and back taxes; undergoing background checks; learning English; and proving employment status. The bill also would create new guest worker programs for lower-skilled and agricultural workers, increase the number of high-skilled temporary visas and expand the number of green cards issued every year.

For Democrats, the bill represents the fulfillment of a campaign promise to Hispanic voters. For Republicans, it’s a way to dilute the Democrats’ appeal to a growing and increasingly powerful demographic group.

“Republicans have got to compete for the Hispanic voter,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said. Passing the immigration bill “puts us on a level where we can compete in the battle of ideas.”

But getting the bill through Congress won’t be easy. Earlier efforts in 2006 and 2007 crumbled in part because of Republicans concerns about granting “amnesty” to those who broke the law to move to the United States. And those concerns have not gone away.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., a vociferous critic of a comprehensive immigration overhaul, would not rule out a filibuster of the bill if it gets through the Judiciary Committee. “We’ll see how it goes,” Sessions said.

Sessions and Sen. David Vitter, R-La. — who were joined by a smattering of law enforcement professionals — held a rival news conference denouncing the bill at about the same time the group of eight senators were unveiling it. Sessions opposes the bill’s path to citizenship and its language giving unauthorized immigrants the option for a temporary legal status before steps have been taken to secure the border. Sessions said the measure does not address the issue of allowing law enforcement officials to enforce existing laws.

Should the bill get out of the Senate, it could run into trouble in the House. House Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., is promising to modify the bill to toughen the border security provisions and expand the guest worker programs.

“While the bill makes a good-faith effort to overhaul our broken immigration system, there are some flaws which could lead to the same problems in the future that we have today,” Goodlatte said.

Of course, Goodlatte is far from the only player in the chamber. A separate bipartisan group of House lawmakers has been working quietly to forge their own compromise, which they say could be unveiled soon.