Immigration overhaul faces a long road in Congress

McClatchy NewspapersApril 15, 2013 

— The massive legislative overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws that’s expected to be unveiled in the Senate on Tuesday may represent a bipartisan breakthrough for the so-called Gang of Eight, but it’s just the beginning of a long slog.

Huge obstacles remain to passing a sweeping bill that would provide a 13-year path to citizenship for many of the 11 million immigrants who are in the United States illegally. Even with backing from business groups and a promise to secure the borders, it will be difficult to get enough Senate Republicans on board to pass the bill.

Even if the bill does get through the Senate, its prospects in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives appear dim at best, because there may be enough Republicans like Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, who views the Senate measure as nothing more than an amnesty bill.

“The Senate’s immigration proposal contains a fatal flaw,” Smith said on the House floor Monday. “It legalizes almost everyone in the country illegally – amnesty – before it secures the border. As a result, the Senate proposal issues an open invitation to enter the country illegally. Millions more will do so before the border is secure.”

Speculation that the bill was in trouble even before it was introduced raced through Capitol Hill on Monday after Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., announced that he was shifting a hearing on the measure from Wednesday to Friday.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a Gang of Eight member and tea party favorite who’s viewed as the key to garnering Republican and conservative support for the bill, said the hearing delay was to give lawmakers more time to read the bill.“This extra time will give the American people and their senators a chance to better prepare for this first major opportunity to ask questions about the bill,” Rubio said in a statement.

The proposed immigration revamp tackles many elements of what lures immigrants to the United States: employment. Industry officials who’ve been briefed on the legislation expect it to expand the H1B program for highly skilled workers significantly, raise caps to make it easier for the agriculture sector to hire farm workers and create an entirely new program for the service-oriented jobs that are a huge lure for low-skilled workers. This latter program, however, is likely to be capped at 200,000 visas, phased in over 10 years, a small number given that this population is what makes up the bulk of workers without documentation today.

Employers have had few consequences for hiring those workers, and the legislation would, over a five-year phase-in, require that all employers participate in the E-Verify program. In essence, employers large and small would have to verify the immigration status of all their workers. The E-Verify program is voluntary today, with fewer than a dozen states requiring it for companies that are contracting for state business.

Some members of the all-Democratic Congressional Black Caucus have indicated that they may balk at the bill if it fails to sufficiently address their concerns about the H1B visas and a lottery-driven diversity visa program that the House voted to eliminate last November in order to expand the H1B program.

Since then, black caucus officials have been talking with Senate leaders and Gang of Eight members in hopes of stemming the House action, which they say would adversely affect immigration of lesser-skilled people from African and Caribbean nations.

A 2011 report by the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan research center, shows that blacks from Africa, though just 3 percent of the U.S. foreign-born population, are among the fastest-growing immigrant group in the country.

“Because we were not at the table, there was no one there to raise the issue for us or speak for us, and as a consequence we are now trying to fight after the fact,” Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, the chairwoman of the 43-member caucus, said in an interview with McClatchy late last month. “We’re still going to fight. We still have 42 votes” in the House and one in the Senate.

White House officials say they’re comfortable that the legislation’s 13-year path to citizenship is consistent with President Barack Obama’s plan for immigration restructuring.

Rubio, a possible 2016 presidential candidate, blitzed the Sunday talk shows to explain why he’s helping to lead the initiative to overhaul immigration laws.

Saying that “we’re not rewarding anything,” Rubio added, “I just hope that I can convince people that leaving things the way they are now is much worse than approaching it the way we’ve outlined.”

Anti-immigration groups were skeptical. The Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington advocacy organization, released a report Monday that it said documented weak border controls going back to 2004.

NumbersUSA, another anti-immigration group, is running TV ads targeting Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Democratic Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska. Both are up for re-election next year, with Graham preparing for a possible stiff challenge in his red state’s Senate primary in June 2014 and Begich all but certain to face a serious general election fight in a state that’s also heavily Republican.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican who’s emerged as a leader of senators who are opposed to many of the immigration proposals, said Monday that the plan would produce a flood of immigrants, some newly arrived under expanded visa provisions and others already here illegally.

“The guest-worker program in this proposal represents only a fraction of the increase in legal foreign workers that will be rapidly introduced,” Sessions said. “Including those illegal immigrants that are legalized, this bill over 10 years will result in at least 30 million new foreign workers – more than the entire population of Texas.”

A pro-immigration-overhaul group, Latino Decisions, released a poll that it said had found that the nation’s 11 million residents living here illegally have deep roots in the United States, with 85 percent of them claiming family members who already are citizens.

In a separate effort to counter opposition to treating immigrants living here illegally more leniently, a group that calls itself Bibles, Badges and Business is mobilizing Republican state attorneys general, influential evangelicals and business owners.

Lesley Clark and Franco Ordonez contributed to this article.

Email: wdouglas@mcclatchydc.com, jrosen@mcclatchydc.com, khall@mcclatchydc.com; Twitter: @williamgdouglas, @jamesmartinrose, @kevinghall

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