Immigration reform got a substantial boost in the Senate Thursday, as Republican Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and John Hoeven of North Dakota helped craft a compromise proposal on border security that could pave the way for an overwhelming approval of the bill when it comes to a final vote next week.
The amendment, together with a handful of others still under negotiation but whose prospects appear favorable, could push the vote total toward 70 senators. That is something of a magic number for proponents of immigration reform, who think a huge, bipartisan vote in the Senate could compel the House to act. Many Republicans in the House have so far shown little enthusiasm for comprehensive immigration reform.
Yet border security has been among the primary stumbling blocks for Republicans, both in the House and Senate, and Senator Corker is confident that his amendment should allay any concerns.
“If anybody on either side of the aisle had any concerns whatsoever about the border being secure – certainly securing the border should not be an issue if this amendment passes,” he said Thursday.
The "Gang of Eight" senators that crafted the immigration bill also also hailed the importance of the compromise amendment.
“If this amendment doesn’t convince people we are securing the border, nothing will,” says Sen. Chuck Schumer (D) of New York, one of the bill’s authors.
The amendment, which will likely come up for a vote early next week, would double the number of border security agents along the US-Mexico divide to 40,000 and require the completion of 700 miles of border fencing, up from 350 in the initial border plan. The measure explicitly spells out the types of technology (including unmanned aerial vehicles and special radar) and infrastructure to be deployed by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which will have to provide a border security strategy six months after the bill is enacted.
The Corker-Hoeven compromise addressed concerns on both sides of the aisle.
Republicans pointed out that the DHS has failed to enforce immigration laws in the past. They also were concerned that, under the original bill, DHS was tasked with devising its own border security plan. What if that plan wasn't up to snuff? Republicans said.
Democrats, on the other hand, feared that an alternative – putting specific border-security goals in place and then making the pathway to citizenship contingent on their fulfillment – would allow a future Congress to short-circuit the route to citizenship for the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Corker-Hoeven’s answer was to establish five "triggers" that will increase border security significantly, but which can be definitively implemented in a relatively short period. These are:
- The addition of 20,000 border patrol agents.
- The construction of 700 miles of fencing.
- The implementation of more and advanced border-security technology
- The nationwide implementation of the E-Verify employment verification system.
- The implementation of electronic scanning systems for foreigners entering and exiting the US at all air and seaports.
“What we’ve done is changed the paradigm away from something that is more subjective and can be gamed to something that is very tangible and every American can see and understand,” Corker said.
Corker estimates that as many as 15 GOP senators could back the bill if the Corker-Hoeven amendments are added. Given that five Republican senators were already backing the bill openly, that would mean an addition of 10, and perhaps more. Two of the potentially new "ayes" – Republican Sens. Mark Kirk of Illinois and Dean Heller of Nevada – announced Thursday that they would all but certainly back an immigration reform bill with the Corker-Hoeven amendments.
The ramped up personnel requirement of the Corker-Hoeven package would boost the cost of the overall bill number by more than $30 billion. Previously, members of the Gang of Eight had balked at other Republican proposals for more border agents. But on Tuesday, the Congressional Budget Office found the legislation would cut the deficit by nearly $200 billion over the next decade and as much as $1 trillion in the subsequent 10 years, opening the way for senators to plow some of those projected deficit savings into more border security personnel.
But some opponents of the immigration bill are not swayed.
The Corker-Hoeven compromise is “designed to pass the bill, not to fix the bill,” said Sen. David Vitter (R) of Louisiana.
Detractors say that allowing any of the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants to gain legal status before border security goals are met is a recipe for a repeat of the broken immigration promises of the past.
“Unless the Gang of Eight is willing to reconsider their legalization-first approach, their legislation is beyond repair. Amnesty cannot be improved,” Michael Needham, CEO of Heritage Action, a conservative advocacy group, said in a statement. The group “will oppose amendments that, if adopted, will serve as political cover for those Senators seeking to justify their support for amnesty.”
Democrats weren’t thrilled with the proposal either. They see it as an expensive bit of border-security overkill. But they could live with it.
“It was better than some of the alternatives,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D) of Illinois, one of the bill’s authors. “You couldn’t leave the fate of millions of undocumented Americans in the balance on something so difficult to define and to achieve.”
And with time growing short before the July 4 recess – Senate majority leader Harry Reid’s self-imposed deadline to pass the bill – the Corker-Hoeven amendment was almost certainly the last, best shot for Republicans to make their move on immigration reform.
Asked whether Republicans were facing a make-or-break moment on immigration reform on Thursday, Sen. Bob Menendez (D) of New Jersey, another of the bill’s authors, motioned to a the open door of a nearby Senate subway car.
“Train’s leaving,” he said.