Immigration reform takes giant leap forward with Senate vote

Senators think they have to pass immigration reform overwhelmingly to persuade the House to play ball. They paved the way for that to happen by passing an important amendment Monday.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee speaks with reporters at the Capitol in Washington Monday. A measure he crafted with Sen. John Hoeven (R) of North Dakota would amend the comprehensive immigration reform bill to double the size of the US Border Patrol and complete 700 miles of fencing on the border with Mexico.

The Senate took a giant leap toward passing an immigration reform bill on Monday by approving a bipartisan amendment promising a border security “surge.”

The 67-to-27 vote opens the door for a dozen or more Senate Republicans to help assure the bill’s overwhelming final passage before week’s end. Fifteen Republicans – one third of the party conference – voted in favor of the measure.

The compromise amendment broke the Senate’s stalemate on immigration – finding long-sought middle way between Republican requirements of stiffer border security and Democratic demands that the path to citizenship for those in the country illegally not be delayed indefinitely. It brought a number of Republicans into the immigration reform fold and firmed up support among some conservative-leaning Democrats.

“The bill has been improved dramatically tonight by this vote, there’s no question” says Sen. Bob Corker (R) of Tennessee, who crafted the amendment with Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota and the main bill's bipartisan "Gang of Eight" authors.

In addition to addressing border security, the amendment was important because it also incorporated amendments from Sens. Susan Collins (R) of Maine and Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont that should swing more support to the final bill. And that process isn't finished. The discussions among Senator Corker, Senator Hoeven, and the Gang of Eight also laid the groundwork for amendments from other senators – such as Sen. Rob Portman (R) of Ohio – that could broaden the appeal of the bill further.

“Hopefully there will be other improvements made with other amendments, and my sense is we’re going to pass an immigration bill out of the United States Senate that is no doubt historic and I think is something very, very important for this nation,” Corker said.

The amendment's key provisions include:

  • More than 19,000 new border patrol agents by 2019, nearly doubling the size of the border patrol, and separately add some 3,500 more customs agents by 2017.
  • The construction of 700 miles of fencing along the US-Mexico border, up from 350 miles in the original legislation.
  • Specific border security materiel for each section of the border, from the number of video surveillance systems near Tucson to the number of ground sensors buried near San Diego, for example. Among the new assets will be four border surveillance drones and a clutch of Blackhawk helicopters for borderwide surveillance and enforcement.

Those benchmarks are added to two already in the original bill – the establishment of an improved system of tracking entry and exit to the country at air and seaports, and the implementation of E-Verify, a nationwide workplace-verification system. All those benchmarks must be achieved before any of the nation’s 11 million undocumented immigrants can become permanent residents.

The policy implications of these measures are contested by critics on the left and right.

Liberals deride the measure as overkill – an almost comic overreach that could station border agents a football field apart every hour of every day along the 2,000-mile US-Mexico border.

“I don’t think anybody’s got an accurate crystal ball in 2013 on what we’re going to need in 2023” for securing the southern border, says Angela Marie Kelley, a senior immigration analyst at the liberal Center for American Progress. “This is ensuring a measure of comfort that was obviously needed for several Republicans from non-border states, like Tennessee and North Dakota, to want to join the bill and keep the momentum going to get legislation done.”

Meanwhile, groups that want to keep immigration levels low say the amendment amounts to more empty promises – cartoonishly high goals for border funding that they say will lead down the familiar path of grand aims up front but little chance of congressional follow-through when it comes time to cut the checks.

“The next Congress or the one after it is going to look at it and say, ‘It’s ridiculous, we’ve got to cut back on this,’ ” says Mark Krikorian, head of the Center for Immigration Studies. The lofty border security requirements, he says, are “not going to happen.”

Supporters note that the Congressional Budget Office last week estimated that the original immigration reform bill would cut the deficit, and that the money for the Corker-Hoeven amendment would draw down only a portion of those projected savings.

What the amendment could mean for the bill’s chances in the US House of Representatives, which is likely to weigh immigration reform in July, is also up for dispute.

The Senate bill’s backers hope that votes from a large contingent of Republicans, pushing the final vote total to 70 or more senators, could put pressure on the House to move on immigration reform.

But that sort of open posturing may make the House and its beleaguered Speaker, John Boehner (R) of Ohio, “even less likely” to submit to the Senate’s demands, says Mr. Krikorian, noting that the more partisan House GOP conference won’t want to look like it’s bowing to the Democrat-led Senate.

“Even though Boehner is looking for a way to pass this amnesty,” he says, “all of this talk about pressure on the House to pass the bill, it’s going to make it hard even for him to be able to support anything like this.”

“The bill has been improved dramatically tonight by this vote, there’s no question” says Senator Corker. “Hopefully there will be other improvements made with other amendments and my sense is we’re going to pass an immigration bill out of the United States Senate that is no doubt historic and I think is something very, very important for this nation.”

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