The Senate opens formal debate Thursday on a comprehensive immigration reform proposal, launching the grueling process of amending a bill that could represent the most sweeping overhaul of the nation’s border control laws in nearly three decades. Read below for Thursday's developments.
As the Senate debated an immigration bill, President Obama was in Austin, Tex., visiting a local high school and small business to emphasize his administration’s push for jobs.
Texas has a fast-growing Latino population and some of Obama’s former campaign staff have begun a push to turn the state more Democratic in future election cycles. It would seem a natural stop for an immigration speech, but Obama didn’t mention the bill in his remarks at Manor New Technology High School.
The reason Obama chose not to focus on immigration, despite its high importance to his second-term agenda, is that he has been careful not to step on the Senate process. Democrats have cautioned the White House not to alienate Republican lawmakers by campaigning too hard in public for immigration reform.
Obama has spoken on immigration, most recently tying his trip to Mexico and Costa Rica to economic development partnerships that will help establish better flows of workers into the United States. But on his Austin trip, the president was mum.
But he was reminded by the nature of the changing population when he was greeted by a bilingual sign at the high school reading: “Welcome, Bienvenido President Obama.”
In trying to explain the differences between the United States' southern and northern borders, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) found himself forced to make clear that he meant Mexico no disrespect.
"Why is one [border] a problem and the other is not? Because Canada is a place where people like to stay," Graham said. "We love to have them visit, they want to go home because it's a nice place. But people coming across the southern border live in hellholes. They don't like that. They want to come here. The problem is, we can't have everybody in the world who lives in a hellhole coming to America."
The difference, Graham said, is jobs. "They come from countries where they can't find work and life is miserable."
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), an immigration reform skeptic, quickly responded that "while there's poverty in Mexico and some really poor areas, it's not a hellhole. There are some great things going on in Mexico."
Graham replied: "You're right. I wasn't slandering Mexico, I'm just talking about all the places people want to leave, for whatever reason."
The committee rejected an amendment by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) that would triple the size of the U.S. Border Patrol and quadruple federal funding for unmanned aerial drones and helicopters along the U.S.-Mexico border, while also requiring that a series of specific benchmarks be met before the Department of Homeland Security can process the applications of undocumented immigrants.
The committee rejected the amendment by a vote of 5 to 13, with three Republicans -- Orrin Hatch (Utah), Lindsey Graham (S.C.) and Jeff Flake (Ariz.) -- joining Democrats to vote against it.
The Cruz proposal was similar to other GOP proposals introduced Thursday that attempted to establish specific criteria for U.S.-Mexico border security that would need to be certified by top federal officials before Congress proceeded with further consideration of the nation's immigration laws. But every time, Democrats and some skeptical Republicans have rejected the proposals.
Flake, a member of the "Gang of Eight," voted against the amendment. He said that while he agreed that while more resources are needed along the U.S.-Mexico border, the proposal's high cost means it's "probably somewhere we can't go."
The Senate Judiciary Committee is taking another brief recess while senators go vote on two judicial nominations.
For those of you keeping score, the committee has considered 20 amendments today, with 16 approved, three rejected and one withdrawn.
The Judiciary Committee unanimously approved an amendment by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) that clarifies for which immigration-related cases a state or local law enforcement agency could seek reimbursement from the federal government.
The panel approved the proposal unanimously, in part because Republicans agree that the clarifications -- and funding -- are necessary to help cash-strapped state and local governments.
In announcing his support for the plan, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) cited a story in Thursday's Washington Post about Brooks County, Tex., where local authorities are grappling with a wave of deaths. The bodies and scattered remains of 129 migrants were found last year in the county.
"The county already has to pay to bury all of these bodies, and some of them in graves denominated by unknown male or female," Cornyn said. "So this is a very real and present need and I thank Senator Feinstein for her leadership on this."
With the committee returning from lunch, Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he believed the morning's proceedings had gone smoothly -- and that some of his Republican colleagues were eager to find ways to support the overall bill.
"I think many of our Republican colleagues are wrestling with this proposal," he said, adding that Republicans "know that it’s a good, strong proposal."
Reporters and close observers of the process are awaiting to see whether Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) plans to introduce the Uniting American Families Act, which would extend the automatic green card privilege granted to heterosexual spouses to the foreign-born partners of American gays, lesbians and bisexuals.
“This one is something that I worry about all the time, even -- I’m a good sleeper -- but I wake up thinking about these things," Schumer said when asked whether Leahy will introduce the amendment. "Our four Republican colleagues feel very strongly that -- those in the "Gang of Eight" -- that if this is in the bill that they will not be able to support it. Our four Democratic colleagues, including myself, believe that this is not just another issue, but an issue of discrimination."
But will Schumer vote for the Leahy amendment if it comes up?
“I’m not going to debate and speculate, or get into speculatives," he said. "I would very much like to see it in the bill. But we have to have a bill that has support” in order to even debate whether to include the amendment.
Three hours into the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on immigration, the panel has approved 17 amendments -- eight of them written by Republican senators.
With that, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) announced a lunch recess until 1:30 p.m.
The immigration reform debate has made some strange political bedfellows. So it was that Sen. Charles Schumer, a liberal Democrat from New York, was trying to convince his fellow senators of his conservative bona fides.
Arguing that the comprehensive immigration bill he had helped write was fiscally responsible between costs and revenues, Schumer said: “What we tried to do was be—I hate to use the word—more conservative,” drawing laughs from other senators and onlookers in the meeting room.
“Did you feel the tremors in the room?” joked Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.).
“Good Lord, please don’t strike me down,” Schumer said with a chuckle, looking toward the ceiling.
As he continued to make his point, Schumer emphasized that the legislation would require fees from illegal immigrants who pursue legal status that would pay for new investments in border security and other measures.
Moments later, when voting on a funding amendment Schumer had proposed, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) mistakenly voted against it.
“Just because I said ‘conservative'?” Schumer asked. Feinstein realized her mistake and changed her vote in favor.
The Senate Judiciary Committee rejected an amendment 6 to 12 by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) that would have required Congress to certify that border security strategies are "substantially operational" once the Secretary of Homeland Security has given similar certification.
The panel rejected the amendment in part because it turned down a similar amendment by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) that would have required DHS to certify the security of the U.S.-Mexico border before granting legal status to 11 million undocumented immigrants.
A key group of conservatives backed the ongoing push for immigration reform Thursday, lending bipartisan weight to the ongoing talks after meeting with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) this week.
The American Conservative Union said that its meeting with Rubio -- a key member of the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" -- allayed concerns that Congress won't work to stop President Obama from taking executive action regarding U.S. immigration policy.
"Conservatives are ready to support immigration reform, so long as it is pro-economic growth, strengthens families, fosters assimilation and prevents another wave of illegal immigration from happening again," the group says in a statement.
"The immigration bill being taken up in the Senate is an important starting point in the effort to improve what even those opposed to the bill agree is a failed and broken system. The bill includes triggers to insure border security and interior security before any immigrant is given permanent legal status. It includes a guest worker program that moves us toward a merit-based system. Notably, these are all key features that President Obama has vociferously opposed and undermined during his four years in office and are provisions that conservatives have been advocating for decades.
"This legislation is not perfect," the group adds later. "We do not expect the bill without amendments to pass, and we encourage good-faith amendments to improve the legislation. We are encouraged by the starting point that Senator Rubio and his Republican colleagues have gotten leading liberals in the Senate to agree to. We believe they are working in good faith to improve the bill and we support a fair, open and transparent legislative process."
The committee approved an amendment 14 to 4 by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) that makes minor changes to how Congress would fund the immigration overhaul.
After the vote Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) announced the panel will hold two more votes on amendments before taking a lunch break.
The committee voted 12 to 6 to reject an amendment by Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) that would have required federal law enforcement authorities to establish operational control of the entire U.S.-Mexico border for six months before allowing any of the nation's 11 million undocumented immigrants to earn legal status.
Democrats unanimously objected to the measure, arguing that the border is safer and more secure than at any other point in the last 40 years. They cited statistics provided to the committee by Homeland Security Janet Napolitano that noted, among other statistics, that there is more than 200 miles of fenced border in sensitive areas and more manpower in the region than ever before.
"I don't think we want to slow this thing down," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) told her colleagues, adding later, "I'm here long enough to know where things were 10, 15 years ago and how much things are better today."
But Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) said that Democrats focus too much on what the Obama administration has attempted to do to stop the flow of illegal immigrants and fails to acknowledge that undocumented immigrants still successfully cross.
Cornyn compared problems along the border -- and Democrats' defense of current operations -- to a household that hires a roofer to fix a leaky roof. Once the roofer leaves, the family realizes that the roof is still leaking. When they call to complain, the roofer defends his worker by saying that he tried in vain for 10 hours to fix the roof, even though it's still leaking.
"It still leaks," Cornyn said about the border. "And what we ought to be looking at are the results, the output, and not the input."
This item has been updated.
The judiciary panel approved 11 more amendments en bloc with minimal debate.
One of the amendments by Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) would strike provisions of the underlying bill that establish a border crossing fee. Requiring a fee would make U.S. Border Patrol agents "toll collectors instead of law enforcement," Leahy told his colleagues.
The amendment had bipartisan support and was designed in part to not force Canadians crossing the northern U.S. border to have to pay fees during business or tourism trips.
The committee hopes to move quickly and will consider some related amendments in large groups, while debating others individually. But the plan to move quickly gives us reporters little time to determine which amendments are up for a vote. (Very few people -- staffers, activists or reporters have read or at least skimmed each of the 300 amendments.)
In an effort to organize the amendments clearly, committee staffers labeled each proposal by affixing the sponsoring senator's last name and a number to each amendment.
Here is the list of the 11 amendments -- with links to each amendment so you can read them at your convenience, and brief descriptions provided by Senate aides, as available:
Leahy1: In response to a Department of Homeland Security budget request to study charging admission for pedestrians and passenger vehicles crossing land borders into the United States, the amendment "prevents the creation of a border crossing fee at land ports of entry along the Southern and Northern borders."
Grassley2: "Adds Senate and House Judiciary Committees to list of bodies Secretary [of Homeland Security] reports to on Border Strategy, implementation of strategy, Ombudsman reporting on Interagency Collaboration, Secretary reporting on reducing barriers to naturalization. Also specifies that L Blanket Petition Process report go to Judiciary committees."
Grassley5: "To require the DHS Chief Financial Officer to submit annual audited financial statements concerning the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Trust Fund. The audits shall include a report from a CPA, a balance sheet, a cash flow statement, and other information that the auditors deem important."
Sessions36: "Expands the functions of the USCIS Ombudsman to include providing assistance to individuals and families who have been the victims of crimes committed by aliens or violence near the United States border."
Cornyn6: "Adds severe forms of trafficking in persons to the violent crimes reporting required by the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting Program."
Flake1: "This amendment increases the number of members that sit on the DHS Oversight Task Force from 26 to 29 in order to include 3 private land representatives. One representative would come from the Northern border region and 2 would come from the Southern border region."
Flake2: "Substitutes status report deadlines described as month and day with deadlines of every 180 days. Adds the Comptroller General to the list of entities to which to report. Adds a subsection directing the Comptroller to review the semi-annual reports and submit an assessment on the status and progress of the Southern Border Security Strategy to the Congressional Committees named in section 5."
Twelve amendments down... 288 to go... (that is, if all 300 are actually considered.)
The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved the first of roughly 300 amendments to the immigration bill.
By a vote of 14 to 4, the panel voted to approve an amendment that literally replaces the whole underlying bill in order to make some typographical and technical changes.
The vote came after a spirited exchange between Sens. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who briefly locked horns regarding some aspects of the bill regarding guest workers.
One amendment down, just 299 to go...
Warning that the bipartisan immigration under consideration provides "no guarantee of increased border security," the union representing employees of Immigration and Customs Enforcement warns lawmakers of its serious concerns with the proposal.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who is equally critical of the proposal, submitted a letter from the National ICE Council that warns that illegal border crossings have already "spiked dramatically" because of speculation about the proposal's eventual passage.
"Thousands of unaccompanied children, runaways, and families now attempt to illegally enter the United States in hopes of receiving legalization," the letter states. "This trend will surely continue after enactment as S. 744 provides no commitment of stronger border enforcement for at least five to ten years following the initial legalization phase. Thousands will be victimized or perish as they attempt the treacherous crossing into the United States in hopes of attaining legal status."
In sum, it said, "Without a strategy of border security first, S. 744 will only draw more illegal immigrants into the United States, resulting in unnecessary harm to many."
Supporters and critics alike of the immigration legislation agree that the bill should -- and likely will -- bolster border security by providing more manpower, technology and funding to stem the flow of illegal crossings along the U.S.-Mexico border.
The full letter appears below:
Among the 100 U.S. senators, there’s just one who is a first-generation immigrant: Hawaii’s Mazie Hirono (D), who was born in Japan and came to the U.S. with her mother when she was 8 years old.
Hirono has spoken from a personal view during the immigration reform debate, noting that her mother brought her and her two brothers to Hawaii to flee their abusive father, who was an alcoholic.
“She raised me and them by herself so we could have better lives in this country called America,” Hirono said during the hearing. She said that during the debate over reform, senators should be mindful that “immigrants are human beings with families.”
Hirono has offered several amendments that would restore some categories of family visas, which the legislation would eliminate in order to free up visas for more immigrants who offer work skills.
This rarely happens, but Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) called out a member of the audience during the hearing.
At the behest of Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Leahy welcomed Esther Olavarria, a former counsel to the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) on immigration issues.
Olavarria is now a deputy assistant secretary of Homeland Security for policy. Before joining the Obama administration, she served as a senior fellow and director of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank closely aligned with the Obama White House.
She was born in Cuba and came to the U.S. at age 5 with her family.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of two Republican members of the "Gang of Eight" on the Judiciary Committee, sought to allay the concerns of his more conservative colleagues when he spoke at the start of the hearing.
"We've got disorder, and we want order," Graham said of the current immigration system.
Picking up on the concerns of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Graham said, "No guest worker should get a job at the expense of an American worker … But this bill I think protects the American worker from being misplaced."
Graham also addressed the origins of the nation's immigration woes, noting that most people who come to or stay in the U.S. illegally come from "very poor and corrupt countries."
"We're not being overrun by Canadians," Graham said, because Canada is a safe, stable country with a thriving economy.
One of the shorthand ways that Republicans are attacking the comprehensive immigration bill is to compare it to another massive piece of legislation backed by the Obama administration from three years ago that remains unpopular among conservatives.
“This follows in footsteps of the health care reform bill,” Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) said during his opening statement. “We learn every day that whoever is implementing that bill is overstepping the process whenever possible. We can’t let the same thing happen with this bill.”
Grassley has offered 77 amendments to the bill, and he said part of the reason he filed so many is because he is trying to “educate” the public about what is in the proposal, which is more than 800 pages. He wasn’t the first Republican to compare immigration to health care because it gives too much leeway to the administration to implement the border control provisions in the plan.
During a hearing Tuesday, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said the border control bill is “a bit like Obamacare.”
“I hate to bring that up, but 1,800 references to ‘the secretary shall at a later date decide things,’” Paul said. "We don’t write bills around here. We should write the bill. We should write the plan. We should too these things to secure the border whether it be fence, entry, exit, we should write it–not delegate it.”
Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), echoing the sentiments of other conservative lawmakers, urged his colleagues to move ahead quickly with border security reforms and other areas of broad bipartisan agreement and then spend the next few years sorting out other complex issues.
"Some concrete, incremental process shouldn’t be sacrificed so that we can address every issue at once," Lee told his colleagues. "We ought not hijack progress on commonsense incremental progress."
Lee's comments come as House Republicans are planning to move ahead incrementally with individual proposals instead of a larger comprehensive proposal.
The senator said, "We’re in the immigration mess we’re in today because a single comprehensive bill in 1986" that "may have made things worse" by trying to address several issues at once.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) thanked the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" for its work on overhauling the nation's immigration laws, but made clear he thinks it's time for the rest of the Senate to be heard.
"Now’s the time for the other 92 members of the U.S. Senate to weigh in, and I hope we will have a process that will allow us to do so," Cornyn told the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Cornyn is a former state attorney general and a key GOP senator to watch over the course of the debate. He faces reelection in 2014 and pressure from conservatives across the country not to cede too much ground to Democrats on any issue. He sits on the judiciary panel with his Lone Star State colleague, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who is emerging as a younger darling of the conservative movement.
Cornyn also noted that there are "43 new senators since the last time we took up a comprehensive immigration bill, so there’s a lot of people who know a lot about this topic and a lot of people who are engaging on this subject who perhaps are new."
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), another member of the bipartisan "Gang of Eight," called out some out some of his colleagues as he noted the country's rich tradition of immigration.
"We are a nation of immigrants: Cruz, Hirono, Leahy, Sessions and all the rest of us," Durbin said, calling out members of the committee from Texas, Hawaii, Vermont and Alabama.
Durbin noted that his mother came to the United States at age 2 from Ukraine and that her son now serves in Congress: "It’s my story, it’s my family’s story, but it’s an American story."
Saying he was proud to have participated in the bipartisan talks to draft an immigration bill, Durbin called the immigration gang "the most diverse political group you can imagine. But we’ve come together, we’ve reached agreement and we’ve compromised and I think we’ve come up with a good work product."
Senate Judiciary Committee Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, will be tweeting during the hearing to announce which amendments are up for debate, aides said. He is using the hashtag #CIRmarkup. Those who want to watch the hearing live can do so here.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) is the first cosponsor of the bipartisan immigration proposal to speak at the hearing, and he warned his colleagues that nobody will be completely happy when the process is over.
"We believe we have taken all considerations into account and we have come up with a fair bill, where no one gets everything they want, but at the end of the day it will mean dramatic improvement for the American economy, for the American people and it will make our immigration policy much more in-synch with what is good for jobs and Americans," Schumer said.
"Don’t make an effort to kill a bill that is the best hope for immigration reform that I believe that we’ve had in this country and frankly, the best hope to break the partisan gridlock that has strangled the Senate, the Congress and the country," he said later.
Moments before the Senate Judiciary Committee convened to begin debating hundreds of proposed amendments to an immigration bill, a few dozen activists held a silent vigil in the back of the hearing room.
Members of Campaign for Citizenship, a faith-based immigration advocacy group, prayed "for the committee members, for a pathway to citizenship that is fair, inclusive and direct, and for their friends and family members who are aspiring Americans," the group said in a release distributed to reporters shortly before the vigil.
Audience members in the Hart Senate Office Building hearing room are permitted to hold silent vigils, but are not allowed to shout or interrupt the proceedings in any way, lest they be kicked out of the room.