What did Republicans win in the immigration deal?

January 28, 2013

It’s has been widely assumed this morning by some immigration advocates (and by yours truly, too) that the new immigration reform plan’s process of citizenship for the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants is contingent on a commission of Southwestern officials declaring the border secure.

Not true. I’ve now got clarification from Senate staff working on the bill, and it turns out that the enforcement commission’s judgments will only be advisory, and are entirely nonbinding. Congress’ actions will not be dictated by what this commission concludes; neither will actions taken by the Department of Homeland Security. The citizenship process will be triggered  by other means (more on this soon).

This is central to the debate. If this commission had the power to dictate when the citizenship process begins, it could endanger the entire enterprise by giving people like Jan Brewer veto power. Second, this enforcement commission is being seen as a major concession Republicans won in exchange for agreeing to grant citizenship to the 11 million.

But the commission isn’t, for all practical purposes, really a major concession at all. If you look at the framework released by the bipartisan group of eight Senators today, it never quite says directly that the citizenship process can’t move forward until the commission reaches its findings. Rather, it says the plan creates a commission that will make a “recommendation” on when border security has been achieved, and doesn’t specify that this recommendation is what triggers the citizenship process.

Here how it’s supposed to work, according to staffers for one of the Dem Senators working on the legislation. The framework calls for an increase in the number of unmanned aerial vehicles, surveillance equipment, agents, and other measures designed to increase border security. The legislation will lay out specific targets as to how much border security needs to be increased by DHS; when those targets are met, the citizenship process goes forward, with the granting of probationary legal status to the undocumented.

Dem staffers say the four key Senate Republicans agreed to this approach, and this afternoon, when the bipartisan group of Senators holds their presser announcing the plan, this should become clearer. The concessions Republicans got in this deal — in exchange for agreeing to citizenship for 11 million — include beefed up border security, a new program designed to help employers verify their employees’ status, tougher checks on immigrants overstaying visas, and the need for undocumented immigrants to go to the end of the immigration line. But the enforcement commission doesn’t appear to represent a real concession to Republicans, as it doesn’t seem to have any real influence over the process.

Immigration advocates believe this will create a far easier hurdle to clear, because it doesn’t place power in the hands of this Southwestern commission. Indeed, this basically amounts to a concession by these Senate Republicans that the only way they can put the immigration issue behind them is to let the 11 million move forward, albeit far more slowly than is ideal. Of course, this is likely to anger conservatives who already think the plan’s blueprint is too far to the left.

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UPDATE: It appear that there are some divisions within the bipartisan group of Senators over this point. For instance, Senator Marco Rubio — who is supported by the Tea Party — is not prepared to say that the commission’s role is purely advisory. A source close to Rubio tells me:

Senator Rubio has made clear that all of the enforcement mechanisms must be in place and operational before a pathway to citizenship is made accessible to undocumented immigrants. The details of the metrics that will be used to determined that still need to be worked out by the bipartisan group, but clearly the commission’s recommendation will be a central component to that.

It’s not quite clear whether Rubio is insisting that the commission’s declaration of border security will be absolutely necessary to trigger the path to citizenship, but clearly he isn’t willing to go as far as Dems have in the other direction. So this could still be a sticking point going forward.

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.
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Jamelle Bouie | January 28, 2013