The Senate Judiciary Committee last night passed a massive immigration reform bill and sent it to the Senate floor. The audience in the panel room began to chant “sí se puede.” Most observers expected the markup of the bill to last to the end of this week, but the Senators spent long days Monday and Tuesday as well as last week to consider 200 amendments. In the end, the legislation passed the committee with significant bi-partisan support in a 13-5 vote. Though it remained similar to the original bill introduced last month by the Gang of Eight, many of the approved amendments, and some that were rejected, will significantly impact immigrants and their families.
In a dramatic ending to the markup of the bill, the committee completed the legislation without the the inclusion of immigration rights for bi-national same-sex partners. The amendment had promised to pull thousands more into reform. A 2011 report from the UCLA’s Williams Institute estimated that there are 40,000 gay and lesbian couples barred from applying for immigration benefits for noncitizen partners that are available to married opposite sex couples.
In principle, the amendment to allow gay and lesbian U.S. citizens to sponsor their non-citizen partners for green cards had broad support from Democrats. But as it came under attack from Republicans, some Democrats indicated they would not back the provision if it would repel Republicans.
Republicans, including South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham, who was a member of the Gang of Eight Senators that drafted the bill, said the amendment would derail the legislation.
“You’ve got me on immigration. You don’t have me on marriage,” Graham said. “If you want to keep me on immigration, let’s stay on immigration.”
Ultimately, committee Chair Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., withdrew the amendment. “I take the Republican sponsors of this important legislation at their word that they will abandon their own efforts if discrimination is removed from our immigration system,” Leahy said.
The other major sticking point yesterday was debate over visas for science and technology workers. Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch, who has been walking the fence on the bill, and Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York offered a compromise amendment to simplify the H1-B visa program for so-called STEM visas in ways that tech companies like Microsoft and Facebook support.
Tech companies say there are not enough U.S. workers to fill jobs. But labor groups, including the AFL-CIO call the amendment “anti-worker.” It’s not yet clear what impact the compromise will have on the already fragile relationship between labor and business groups. But Democrats apparently decided the risk of alienating part of their labor support was worth it to gain support from Hatch, who could prove a bellwether for other conservatives in the Senate.
The Senators considered dozens of other amendments yesterday. They passed one from Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, that could make it more difficult for the Secretary of Homeland Security to grant return permits to deportees with U.S. citizen family members. The panel rejected an amendment from Hawaii Democrat Sen. Mazie Hirono that would have allowed U.S. citizens to petition for their siblings and adult children if the petitioner could prove they face significant hardship without their relative.
On Monday, the Senators passed a set of amendments aimed at protecting detainees, including one limiting the use of solitary confinement and another providing significant new protections for detained parents.
The bill will move now to the Senate where reform proponents hope it will take no more than a month to pass. Immigration reforms greatest challenge reamins in the House, where a group of lawmakers are currently finishing their own immigration bill.