Senate Battle Lines Drawn on Immigration Bill

Senators in the Judiciary Committee introduced hundreds of amendments to the comprehensive immigration bill yesterday. They could dramatically alter the bill.

By Seth Freed Wessler May 08, 2013

The battle lines in the congressional immigration reform debate were drawn more firmly yesterday when members of the Senate Judiciary Committee filed well over 300 amendments. The committee will begin discussing the amendments tomorrow starting what’s likely to be several weeks of debate and voting on the bi-partisan comprehensive immigration reform legislation. Republicans have introduced a number of amendments that would largely gut the promise of a path to citizenship and impose nearly unachievable benchmarks for border security. But because Democrats hold a ten of the 18 seats on the committee and two of the Republicans, Sens. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., are among the bill’s drafters, most of those are likely to fall flat. Meanwhile, several Democratic proposals, most notably provisions to provide same-sex couples with immigration rights, will face stiff opposition from Republicans and possibly some Democrats. **From The Right** Republican members of the Judiciary committee filed the majority of the 300 amendments to S.744. In general, the amendments aim to strengthen enforcement measures in a bill that already requires significant new investment in the border and interior immigration controls. Utah’s Sen. Mike Lee offered an amendment would require Congress to first sign off on a border security plan offered by the Department of Homeland Security. Congress would have the power to decide if that plan is sufficiently implemented before undocumented immigrants could apply to the path to citizenship. Along with an amendment from Sen. John Cornyn, R-Tx., requiring the federal government affirm that the US-Mexico border is under "full operational control," these provisions would likely make border security requirement unattainably high. If passed, the so-called border triggers could put the path to citizenship on indefinite hold. Lee would also require applicants to the path to citizenship to pay all back taxes since entering the U.S. The amendment could prove prohibitive for undocumented immigrants who’ve lived in the country for long periods. Among the 77 amendments introduced by Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, one would do away with language intended to protect immigrants from being deported because of laws like Arizona’s SB 1070. Grassley would also require DHS to deport undocumented immigrants who denied entry to the path to citizenship. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Ut., proposed to increase the fee for green cards after the 10 year path to citizenship. He also wants all registered immigrants to provide DNA records. **From The Left** The amendments getting the most attention are two from Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., to include in the bill immigration rights to for same-sex couples. The so-called Protecting American Families Act and another amendment, would allow LGBT Americans to sponsor non-citizen partners for green cards and provide other immigration protections to "permanent partners." Currently, the Defense of Marriage Act, which the Supreme Court is considering, bars same-sex couple from federal marriage benefits, including those that involve immigration. Republicans are calling the provision a poison pill. It "will ensure that [the bill] fails," said Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Meanwhile, it’s not yet clear if the Democratic members of the eight-member group who drafted the bill will support the LGBT provisions. Democrats also proposed amendments to provide greater protections for immigrants in detention and deportation. Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota offered an amendment to protect children of deportees from becoming separated from their parents. Franken was joined in introducing the amendment by several other Democrats but also by Republican Sen. Grassley. The amendment, called the "Humane Enforcement and Legal Protections for Separated Children Act," would provide detained parents with more access to their children and greater latitude to arrange for their kids to travel with deported parents. In the case that detainees’ children are in foster care, the amendment would provide greater access to those proceedings. Another amendment from Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., would expand the version of the DREAM Act in the immigration bill to include undocumented immigrants under the age of 16. Currently, the reform legislation provides a fast track to citizenship for undocumented immigrants over the age of 16 who came the country as children. But the provision does not include younger undocumented immigrants and as a result most minors will have to wait the full ten years for the ability apply for a green card. Sen. Mazie Hirono of Hawaii introduced a series of amendments to maintain family-based immigration. The reform legislation as written would no longer allow U.S. citizens to sponsor their immigrant siblings. Hirono would restore the sibling visa category and expand family-based immigration to additional relatives. Senators will begin discussion on the amendments tomorrow and debate and voting will last at least through next week. Because Democrats control the committee, the bill could leave relatively unscathed. But ultimately, how far the bill moves right or left may depend on votes in coming weeks from the four Senators on the Judiciary Committee who took part in drafting the bill. While they will no doubt reject major shifts that change the underlying nature of the legislation, their willingness to agree to smaller amendments could have significant impact on immigrant communities. *This post has been updated since publication.*