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The Struggle to Define the Immigration Debate

Rep. Steve King is confident that House GOP leaders will take the side of the naysayers when it comes to any overhaul of immigration laws.

“If they’re not on our side, I’d say they’re convertible,” the Iowa Republican said Tuesday, when asked whether House GOP leadership and Judiciary Chairman Robert W. Goodlatte, R-Va., were at all receptive to the demands of King’s informal group to prevent the House from taking up what it calls the Senate’s “amnesty bill.”

“We have a gang of millions behind us,” Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, told reporters, referring to a rising tide of public support for their position.

But GOP forces pushing for an immigration rewrite appear to have to gained strength in recent weeks. After all, the strongest opposition to an anti-immigration rewrite Heritage Foundation report came from fellow GOP activists and high-ranking House Republicans, including Budget Chairman Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin.

And last week, the controversy over the report and its authors led to the resignation of Heritage researcher Jason Richwine, whose previous writings were described by critics as “racist.”

And even as King and other House lawmakers were touting their strength, the Senate Judiciary Committee was handing defeat to Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who has made the demise of the Senate bill something of a personal crusade.

Indeed, King’s and Stockman’s confidence that their band of immigration overhaul opponents can sway GOP leaders is complicated by the competing elements in their own party that want to pass immigration changes, in part to bolster the GOP’s standing among Hispanic voters. To do that, GOP leaders in both chambers may have to make concessions of the sort that the King, Stockman and others have pledged to fight tooth and nail.

On the other hand, House Republican leaders have shown in the past that they are susceptible to mounting pressure from the far right of the GOP, especially from factions large enough to sink a bill if need be.

How King’s group of crusaders fares in the weeks ahead might also hang on how both sides leverage the rhetoric of the immigration debate.

On Tuesday, members of King’s “gang of six” spoke in glowing terms about the documented Latino immigrants in their districts who are law-abiding, hardworking and God-fearing.

The Senate’s immigration bill, Stockman said, is “fundamentally unfair to our Hispanic friends who follow the law.”

Members also disparaged Democrats for seeking to pass an immigration overhaul bill they said was designed to win the affection of Latino voters and build up the Democratic voting base with newly legalized immigrants.

“They’re seeking to create a new voting bloc by calling us racist,” King said.

That friendly rhetoric was coupled with policy proposals that many pro-immigration-overhaul advocates decry.

Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, charged that President Barack Obama wants to offer legal status to any immigrant without discretion and have that be the condition on which he agrees to secure the border.

Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., laid out another demand: Limit the legalization of immigrants to only those that the fragile U.S. economy can support and those who bring tangible job skills and financial resources.

Momentum in the Senate appears to be growing for the immigration overhaul authored by the chamber’s bipartisan “gang of eight.”

The entire Judiciary panel — save Sessions — rejected, 1-17, the Alabama Republican’s proposal to limit the number of new immigrants admitted annually to the United States to 1.2 million, as well as cap temporary workers authorized to work per year at 1 million.

Sessions’ proposal was met with widespread opposition, including from Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz. He argued making the legal system work better decreases illegal immigration.

“One of the ways we make the border secure is in improving or streamlining legal immigration, and I am a full-throated advocate of legal immigration,” he said.

The panel also rejected, 6-12, a Sessions amendment to require use of a biometric entry and exit data system before the Department of Homeland Security can allow illegal immigrants to move beyond the initial provisional status granted by the bill.

“This is a big, big hole in the system,” Sessions said, suggesting that a lack of such a provision feeds public doubt that Congress is serious about enhancing enforcement before granting legalization.

Sessions said the problem lies largely with inadequate use of technology on the exit side of the issue, noting that visa overstays contribute substantially to the number of illegal immigrants in the United States.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, D-N.Y., a co-sponsor of the bill and a member of the Senate group, said the legislation’s new photographic requirements are sufficient, noting the high cost of biometric technology, which includes such identifiers as fingerprints, facial recognition and iris scans.

The bipartisan group that crafted the Senate bill held firm on the issue, with GOP group members Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jeff Flake of Arizona joining all panel Democrats to oppose the amendment.

Joanna Anderson contributed to this report.

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