Immigration Debate Begins While Advocates Demand Obama Halt Deportations

As the Senate prepares to take up the immigration reform bill, immigration advocates are renewing calls on the administration to halt deportations. Meanwhile, Republicans, with some support from Democrats, are pushing the immigration bill to the right.

By Seth Freed Wessler Jun 11, 2013

As the full Senate prepares to begin debate today on the sweeping immigration reform bill, President Obama gave a speech from the White House urging Congress to pass the legislation. Focusing on the economic benefits of reform and trumpeting his administration’s significant expansion of deportation and border enforcement, Obama said that Congress has no excuse not to pass the bill.

"If you’re actually serious and sincere about fixing a broken system, this is the vehicle to do it," Obama said. "There is no good reason to engage in procedural games."

But immigration advocates say that the President must take a leading part in the move toward immigration justice by slowing deportations, which have separated hundreds of thousands of families and left communities riddled with holes.

A group of Congresspeople and immigrants with the support of nearly 500 organizations will deliver a letter to the President tomorrow morning calling on his administration to stop removing immigrants at the current rate of over 400,000 each year. "The best way to open a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants is for you to immediately suspend deportations," the letter reads, "at a bare minimum, for those who would eventually be eligible for the Senate bill’s legalization program. "

In his speech, the President said his deportation policies, which have removed historic numbers of people each year, have worked. "Today deportation of criminals is at its highest level ever," he said.

Advocates are not having it: "There continues to be a wide distance between the President’s rhetoric and his record," said Pablo Alvarado, the director of the national Day Laborer Network, said in a statement. "To close the gap, the President must cease the 1,100 daily deportations he currently oversees."

In his speech, Obama also responded to Republican calls for more border security saying, as he often has, that the border is now more secure than ever. "We made border security a top priority," the President said, adding that his administration doubled the number of agents on the border. 

The Senate immigration bill, which supporters say can pass with more than 60 votes, is expected to face significant challenges from Republicans who will introduce amendments to harden border enforcement provisions and make the path to citizenship more difficult, especially for low-income immigrants.

Senator Marco Rubio, Republican from Florida, who helped draft the legislation in the spring as a member of a bipartisan Gang of Eight Senators, has said recently that the current bill will become law as written. Rubio, along with Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma are threatening to introduce an amendment to give Congress power to draft and certify a border enforcement plan that the administration would then need to implement.  Currently, the bill requires that the Department of Homeland Security implement new border enforcement measures before those on a path to citizenship can move ahead. The congressionally drafted plan could result in even more build up of armed agents and technology on the US-Mexico border. Advocates say the region can’t sustain more militarization. But other members of the Gang of Eight Senate group, including New York Democrat Sen. Chuck Schumer, have said they are open to considering the proposal.  

Another amendment, from Sen. John Cornyn, R-Tex., would expand border enforcement to require that border patrol apprehend at least 90 percent of attempted crossers before any undocumented immigrant can gain a green card.  The amendment could derail the path to citizenship entirely since the 90 percent goal is by most accounts unattainable.  Senate Majority Leady Harry Reid called the amendment a "poison pill." Another amendment from Sen. Paul Rand, R-KY., would require that Congress to stage a vote each year on the progress of border security.

Other Republicans will propose amendments to make it more difficult for undocumented immigrants to gain citizenship by increasing costs.  Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, plans to introduce an amendment that will require unauthorized immigrants to pay all unpaid back taxes from the entire period since arriving in the US. The bill already requires significant tax payments by applicants to the provisional path to citizenship. Though many undocumented immigrants now pay taxes, those who have not always paid income and other taxes may find the requirement impossible to meet, especially for those who’ve been in the country for decades.

While the Senate is expected to pass legislation in the next month, the fate of immigration reform in the House is less clear. House Speaker John Boehner said on "Good Morning America" today that he’s confident the House will pass a bill. "I think, no question, by the end of the year we could have a bill. No question," he said.  But for immigration advocates who say immigration enforcement has already reached an extreme, the bill’s likely rightward drift to gain Republican support in the House raises concerns about what the law will ultimately mean for non-citizens.