Compromise Deal May Speed Immigration Bill Through Senate

The chances of an immigration overhaul bill getting through the Senate greatly improved on Thursday. A deal was reached on a border security plan. Steve Inskeep talks about the deal with two of the senators in the so-called "Gang of Eight," who are working on a bipartisan approach to immigration, Arizona Republican Jeff Flake and Illinois Democrat Richard Durbin.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Senators who favor an immigration law say they've changed it to attract more support.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A vital question is what to do about millions of people inside the U.S. but outside the law. Many Republicans say they're ready to act but many others insist the border must be made secure first. Now the Gang of Eight, - senators from both parties who favor this bill, are offering new techniques.

MONTAGNE: They announced tweaks to their bill at the Capitol yesterday. They want to deploy new technology, keep building a giant border fence, take a border security force that's been doubled and double it again. And also crack down on people who enter the U.S. legally and overstay their visas.

INSKEEP: Lawmakers were still discussing this amendment on the Senate floor when two of the gang slipped away. In a quiet corner office we met with Arizona Republican Jeff Flake and Illinois Democrat Richard Durbin. And we asked Senator Flake if the changes were to secure the border or to secure votes.

SENATOR JEFF FLAKE: I think there's some measure of both, frankly. I think what's more important than anything is to provide a legal framework for people to come and work and then return home. If we have that, and I believe we do in this bill, as well as the second border, if you will, employer enforcement - eVerify will be made mandatory nationwide. That will have to be fully enforced before anyone adjusts their status.

INSKEEP: Now your basic idea is you have to secure the border first, then people begin getting legal status who are here illegally. How do you finally determine - what is the trigger by which you say, OK, the border is secure?

SENATOR RICHARD DURBIN: There are actually five triggers. We talked about the initial investment - billions of dollars in technology and border security, the eVerify system in place and working. The exit/entry visas being tracked. In addition to that now we have added this additional investment that's going to make a big difference, a substantial difference. So I think we've come up with tangible, measurable, achievable things that will make our border safer.

INSKEEP: But I understand you're committing certain resources, but is there going to be, in the version of the bill that you've just announced, does someone have to say, I certify the border is secure?

DURBIN: I'll say it a little differently. We specify in the bill what has to be done before certain other things can occur. We allow for some unusual circumstances; force measure, litigation, things like that. But beyond that, we're very specific, and that's what we decided was the only way through this thicket. We couldn't leave it up to a subjective determination by any elected official. It has to be objective and measurable.

INSKEEP: Have you counted votes as you've put this provision together and are you confident you have plenty of votes to get this at least through the Senate?

FLAKE: Well, we - I think the votes have been there to get it through the Senate for awhile, but I think we have our strongest hand if we move it through the Senate with a number of extra votes. We've had a goal of getting 70 and I think we're going to get very close to that goal.

INSKEEP: You want a huge majority to send a message, what, to the House of Representatives where people are more skeptical?

FLAKE: You bet, and it's not just that. If we get 70 votes, it means to us, as Republicans, that we have a good bill that we can defend on any footing, that we have a bill that will secure the border, that we have one that has a workable, meaningful, guest worker plan, that we address these other issues that have been so troublesome for so long. So it's not just that we have a big vote, it's that we have a good bill.

INSKEEP: The Congressional Budget Office, as you all know very well, has scored the bill prior to your amendment, found it to have some savings. It improves the deficit by a certain amount, an average of maybe $20 billion per year over the next decade, maybe more in later years. Do you end up giving a lot of those savings back with the extra enforcement measures on the border that you're proposing here?

DURBIN: We're going to pay for the administration of this program. Think about it for a second. If millions of people come forward to register, we have to be prepared to do the criminal background checks, make sure we have adequate records, who they are, where they work and the like. But our approach not only doesn't add to the deficit, it, in fact, is going to generate surplus to pay for these expenses.

FLAKE: It's difficult. Even though the CVO score came out with a lot of money over a 10, 20 year period, some of these costs are up front and so we're making sure that this bill comes at no cost to the taxpayer.

INSKEEP: What's it cost to hire 20,000 more border guards?

FLAKE: A lot. It does. It's not an inexpensive item. But if it's what we need to do to have a secure border, it will be worth it.

INSKEEP: I want to just review a little bit of very recent history here, Senator Flake. Immediately after Republicans lost the election in 2012, the snap response of many in the party was this is a disaster. Immigration was a big part of it. Have to get on board with some kind of immigration reform. That was the early response from the Republican Party.

Now that a few months have passed, a little more water under the bridge. President's a little less popular. Are people in your party still feeling that they have to pass something?

FLAKE: I think for the most part, people recognize that we need to. There are some who say, let's not focus on that. Let's just focus on the president and the issues or the problems there. I just don't agree. This is an issue, like I said, first and foremost, on substance, needs to be solved. But I do agree with those and the assessment after the election that, you know, if we want to compete for every vote in America, we've got to make sure that we solve this problem.

INSKEEP: Senators Flake and Durbin, thanks very much to both of you.

DURBIN: Thank you.

FLAKE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Democrat Richard Durbin, Republican Jeff Flake, members of the Gang of Eight in the Senate. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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