‘Gang of Eight’ pledges tough enforcement, difficult path to citizenship

April 18, 2013

The so-called "Gang of Eight" bipartisan group of senators on Thursday debuted its new immigration overhaul bill as a tough but fair and necessary step toward bringing illegal immigrants out of the shadows.

At a press conference, the four Democrats in the gang emphasized that the bill includes tough enforcement measures and an onerous pathway to citizenship, while the four Republicans stressed immigrants' importance to the United States and the pressing need for immigration legislation.

"Yes, our bill does secure the border first," Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) began his remarks.

Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said the pathway to citizenship in the bill -- the most controversial piece of the legislation -- isn't giving anyone a leg-up on those who are pursuing citizenship through legal means.

"This is a long pathway, it's a tough pathway, but it's an achievable pathway," said Menendez, the son of Cuban immigrants.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who spearheaded a failed attempt at immigration reform in the mid-2000s with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), said it's foolish to think the country can deport all illegal immigrants.

"They're here, and realistically, there is nothing we can do to induce them back to their country of origin," McCain said. "Most people who cross our border illegally or overstayed their visa have done so for the same reason as other immigrants."

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), also the son of Cuban immigrants, agreed: “We’re not going to deport them. So let’s bring these people out of the shadows.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) blamed Congress for the wave of illegal immigration after then-president Ronald Reagan granted amnesty in the 1980s and assured that the Gang of Eight's bill would indeed include strong enforcement -- a chief concern of conservatives.

"There will not be a third wave of illegal immigration," Graham said.

The press conference had its lighter moments as well.

Graham suggested the bill should be called the "Schumer-McCain bill" because those two men started the process and -- he joked -- have the smallest egos among the eight.

Rubio, a potential GOP presidential candidate who has staked his political future to a very tough issue for a Republican, took the podium and joked about walking away: "Actually, I changed my mind," he said, before adding: "No, I'm kidding."

Schumer shot back in jest: "Not again. Once is enough."

"It's been fun," Rubio responded, somewhat more sincerely.

The difficulty of the issue for Rubio and other Republicans was clear, with McCain arguing that the party needs to do immigration reform if it wants to be able to compete for Latino votes.

“Passage of this legislation, in my view … doesn’t gain a single vote from the Hispanic community," McCain acknowledged. "But right now, we are not competitive."

The eight senators, which also includes Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), were flanked by a diverse group of people standing behind them, including anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist and AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka.

"I never thought I'd be standing with Richard Trumka," said McCain, whom Schumer introduced as a "great personal friend."

Schumer said the bill would be on the Senate floor no later than June but also assured a robust process in which all sides will have input. And he suggested its prospects were better than his gun control legislation, which failed in the Senate on Wednesday.

"This is ours to lose," Schumer said. "We have a great product here."

Aaron Blake covers national politics and writes regularly for The Fix.
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Aaron Blake · April 18, 2013