WASHINGTON, D.C. – A huge U.S. immigration bill inched forward Tuesday in the Senate, but Republicans warned that the landmark reform risks stalling or even dying in Congress unless backers agree to further tighten border security.
The Senate is spending most of this week and next debating the measure, which would provide a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country, reduce unlawful crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border and revise guest worker programs for agriculture and high-tech industries.
But some Republicans have warned the provisions on border security, which supporters on both sides of the political aisle say would be the strongest ever with drone surveillance and extended fencing, are too weak to earn broad support from their caucus.
That could prove crucial, House Speaker John Boehner said he told his caucus in a closed-door session, because “I don’t see any way of bringing an immigration bill to the floor that doesn’t have a majority support of Republicans.”
Top Senate Democrat Harry Reid wants the Senate’s immigration bill, which is supported by President Barack Obama, passed by early July. Boehner said he aims to begin debate on a House version in the coming month.
But on Tuesday, hours before the Senate cast its first votes on amendments to its bill, Boehner slammed that legislation as “weak on border security.”
And the so-called triggers that would make legalizing immigrants contingent on meeting specific goals for securing the border were “almost laughable,” he said.
Republican Senator John Cornyn also lamented the Senate’s rejection of provisions including more fencing along the border.
“If they won’t take reasonable measures to deal with the border security concerns of the American people, I don’t think we’re going to get an immigration bill,” he said.
Cornyn has introduced a bill that would require a biometric exit system and apprehension rates for illegals of at least 90 percent in effect before the provisional immigrants can earn green cards, but its approval is unlikely.
Sixty votes are needed for the overall bill to pass the 100-seat Senate, but members of the Gang of Eight, the four Democrats and four Republicans who crafted the bill, say they want a 70-vote majority to compel the House to act.
The effort received a shot in the arm Tuesday when the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office forecast that passage of the bill would slash the US deficit by about $175 billion over 10 years, and by $700 billion in 2024-2033, largely from additional income tax collection.
“The CBO has further confirmed what most conservative economists have found: reforming our immigration system is a net benefit for our economy, American workers and taxpayers,” said Senator Marco Rubio, the most prominent Republican sponsor of the legislation and a potential 2016 presidential candidate.
But even Rubio, who helped write the bill, has stressed he wants to see tighter border security, and said he will “work with my Republican colleagues to arrive at a new measure that improves on the significant border security measures already in the bill.”
The House Judiciary Committee meanwhile held a hearing on a Republican proposal that would give state and local authorities more power to arrest immigrants for overstaying visas or entering the country illegally.
That bill is strongly opposed by Democrats, who warned it could sap any good will Republicans may have built after the 2012 election, when Obama garnered 70 percent of the Hispanic vote to help him defeat Republican Mitt Romney.
“Come back to your senses. Do not push forward a bill that criminalizes every immigrant family,” said congressman Luis Gutiérrez, a Democrat who is co-authoring the House legislation.
Gutiérrez said he wants to see broad bipartisan support for what would be the strongest immigration reform in a generation, and warned Republicans they would face harsh political consequences if they derail it.
“If you want to hang yourself on the immigration issue, who am I to stop you?” he snapped.