The immigration reform bill introduced last week has already come under close scrutiny by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which today held its third hearing on the legislation in five days. While some of the content of the hearings edged toward demagoguery, much of the questioning revealed real points of conflict that will likely guide the committee amendment process in early May. The main policy questions about the bill are largely the same now as they were before it was released. They center on the rigidity of the so-called “border triggers” and Republican ambivalence around provisions that provide the Department of Homeland Security discretion to stop deportations or admit people to a path to citizenship.
The bill introduced last week by a bipartisan group of Senators will open the possibility of citizenship to millions of undocumented immigrants currently living without papers in the United States. But to get there, it first requires that Homeland Security reach a set of benchmarks to expand an already bellicose border enforcement infrastructure.
In today’s hearing, Republicans said that the legislation leaves the Secretary of Homeland Security too much power to verify over verifying the security of the border.
“Once the Secretary certifies that the security and fencing plans are substantially deployed, operational and completed, green cards are allocated to those here illegally,” said ranking committee member, Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley. But, he added, “There’s not much of a definition of substantially in the bill,”
On border security, the legislation sets high targets and allocates $6 to $7 billion in new border spending for fencing, cameras, drones and 3,500 border patrol guards. It also increases criminal prosecutions of people trying to cross. Ultimately, the bill establishes as a benchmark that immigration authorities achieve “effective control” of the border, defined as stopping at least 90 percent of attempted crossings in certain areas. If the Secretary does not certify these are met, none of those on the path to citizenship will receive a green card.
As the bill is written, these benchmarks appear to be achievable, even as they threaten to expand a border system that government reports have shown is already outsized and out of control.
While some Republicans hinted that they would seek tighter triggers, the committee chair, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., worried that the bill’s existing border provisions are too draconian.
“I’m concerned that what some are calling triggers could long delay green cards,” Leahy said. “I don’t want people to move out of the shadows and then be stuck in some kind of underclass once they move out of the status.”
Beyond the border, Republicans on the Judiciary Committee say the bill leaves Homeland Security too much discretion over who will be granted Registered Provisional Immigrant status, the name given to the 10-year path to citizenship.
“I am concerned that the bill provides unfettered and unchecked authority to you and your department and your successors,” Grassley said.
Democrats for their part, pushed back on the bill’s exclusions. Some objected to the termination of the sibling visa category that currently allows U.S. citizens to sponsor their brothers and sisters for green cards. Under the bill, after 18 months, siblings would no longer be considered immediate family for immigration purposes. Sen. Leahy and others also said that they’re disappointed that the legislation does not allow gay and lesbian couples to sponsor non-citizen partners.
But in private conversations, most liberal Beltway advocates say they don’t expect the immigration bill to move much to the left and they are gearing up for hard fights on a number of provisions that Democrats in the Gang of Eight fought hard for in the drafting process. These include provisions that allow some deportees with U.S. citizen family members to apply for waivers to return to the U.S. and some modest expansion of immigration judge’s power to stop a deportation if it will have a significant negative impact on U.S. citizens of communities.