WASHINGTON — Supporters of a contentious immigration bill have taken a significant step back from their pledge to require a more secure southern border before amnesty is granted to 11 million illegal immigrants.
Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee and two Republican authors of the bill on Thursday killed an amendment that would require border security requirements be “fully operational” before those non-citizens can apply to live in the U.S. legally.
Instead, the bill will allow for “effective control” and only applies to three “high risk” sectors, not the entire southern border that stretches nearly 2,000 miles.
The massive bill also states that a fencing strategy be approved but not actually constructed before the legalization process begins.
The defeat of full control measures came on the first day of the panel’s work to sort through 300 amendments to the bill before it moves to the Senate floor for a final vote next month. Thursday’s marathon eight-hour session focused on border security with only 21 amendments approved by the Democrat-controlled panel.
The border security trigger was crafted by Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) who said he wanted to avoid making the same mistake lawmakers did in 1986 when three million immigrants were granted citizenship but promised border security measures never materialized.
Grassley’s trigger was defeated 12-6 on a mostly party-line vote – all Democrats and the two panel Republicans who are also part of the Gang of Eight aligned to kill the measure. Nearly ten border strengthening amendments mostly written by Republicans were also defeated.
The so-called Gang of Eight of Democrat and Republican authors of the bill worked behind closed doors for months to draft the language, which was finally released in mid-April and numbered more than 400 pages. In the last week however, the bill has doubled to nearly 900 pages and the Heritage Foundation now puts the cost of the citizenship spree at $6.3 trillion.
One of the changes in the newly expanded bill includes language inserted by Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), a member of the Gang of Eight. The Bennet measure originally allowed foreign ski instructors to participate in a work program designed for professional athletes, but has now been amended to allow snowboard teachers special immigration access to the U.S.
Opposition to the massive bill comes mostly from Republicans, who want to restrict some federal benefits to the flood of new citizens, and to also ensure the border is secured before the bureaucratic path to citizenship begins.
Grassley said his measure would have established “truth in packaging,” and cited numerous polls indicating Americans are open to amnesty, but only if the border is secured first.
“This is very controversial but it ought not to be,” Grassley said.
“Legalization first, enforcement later, is just the opposite of what the people think they are getting,” Grassley said. “Millions of people will be legalized in the first few months after we pass this.”
“My amendment improves the trigger, makes sure the border is secure before one person gets legal status. The entire border, not just high-risk areas, would have to be controlled,” Grassley said.
“If we pass this bill as is, there is no pressure on this administration or future administrations to secure the border. There will be no push by legalization advocates to get that done,” Grassley said.
Democrats argued the trigger is not necessary, noting that the number of border patrol agents has doubled in the last few years. Interestingly, the same opponents to the trigger also beat back language that would have doubled the number of border patrol agents, and voted against enforcement of a recent law to build 700 miles of two-tier fencing.
The bill’s supporters also argued that the Grassley trigger would delay the time for illegal immigrants to apply for citizenship.
“They are in the shadows, and I think we need to bring them out, it would not be good to wait on that process,” said Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), a member of the Gang of Eight.
Flake and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are the two Republicans who voted against the trigger amendment.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) agreed that language must be fine-tuned to force Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to strengthen the border first.
“The secretary of Homeland Security has already declared victory, that the border is secure. We know that is not true,” Cornyn said.
“We want the border to be secure, we don’t want to say how hard we’ve tried. The problem is that we have got to get this right. If this doesn’t work as advertised, we will have failed, we will not have solved the problem,” Cornyn said.
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) argued that “fully operational” means that if one piece of equipment is broken, the legalization process cannot begin.
The border is “too vast” to have full operational control, Schumer said. “This amendment would set a standard that would delay, probably forever, any legalization.”
As it stands, Schumer said the immigration plan is a “sound, balanced, sturdy ship that will now begin its voyage.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) disagreed: “The sponsors have settled for a vision that is attractive, but the legislation does not meet that vision.”
Critics of the bill say other assurances have also fallen short. For example, it’s unlikely that illegal immigrants will pay the back taxes they owe – a requirement for amnesty – as it will be nearly impossible assess.
The mandate that illegal immigrants first learn English has also been watered down to require only that they register for the language class.
And in addition to amnesty for 11 million illegals immigrants already in the country, estimates are now that that as many two million immigrants a year will be granted special access to the country.