Immigration Overhaul Bill Survives Daylong Revamp
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. The immigration overhaul drawn up by the Senate's Gang of Eight survived a daylong effort to significantly change it this week. It all took place on the first day of what will likely be many meetings of the Senate Judiciary Committee as that panel work through more than 300 proposals to amend the bipartisan bill. We're joined now by NPR's congressional correspondent David Welna on the Hill. Thanks very much for being with us, David.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Sure, Scott.
SIMON: You've got four Democrats, four Republicans cosponsoring this revamping to the immigration system. They try to work out a lot of compromises to try and get support from both their parties. How do they intend to try to keep this bill from getting amended into oblivion?
WELNA: Well, right now, the numbers are on their side. You have 10 Democrats on the Judiciary Committee and eight Republicans, and two of those Republicans are cosponsors of the bill. They've voted with all the Democrats on all the key amendments that have come up so far. But it's not clear how the numbers will shake out when the bill goes to the full Senate probably next month. And its prospects are even more uncertain in the Republican-led House where many GOP members have relatively few Latino voters in their districts and thus that much less incentive to get behind legislation that many of their supporters see as just another ill-advised amnesty.
SIMON: What kind of attempts were made to significantly alter the bill during what they call the markup phase of the Judiciary Committee?
WELNA: Well, they were all measures proposed by Republicans to prevent any of the legalization of unlawful immigrants called for in the bill until the southwestern border with Mexico is effectively sealed off. As the bill's now written, legalization of immigrants begins once only a plan for securing the border is presented by the secretary of Homeland Security. And that was unacceptable to Charles Grassley, the judiciary panel's ranking Republican.
SENATOR CHARLES GRASSLEY: If we pass the bill as is, there will be no pressure on the administration or future administrations or even those of us in Congress. There will be no push by legalization advocates to get that job done. We need to work together to secure the border first. People don't trust the enforcement of the law.
WELNA: Now, Grassley proposed an amendment that would allow legalization of unlawful immigrants to begin only six months after all the southwest border is secured. That was defeated, but in what was seen as a conciliatory move, the panel did pass another Grassley measure that expands a requirement that 90 percent of illegal border crossers be detained from three high-risk sectors along the southwest border to that entire border.
SIMON: There are conservatives, David, who indicate that this bill will never get approved unless the border is secure.
WELNA: Well, those who defend the bill say it does make the border more secured. It adds $7 billion worth of fencing, aerial drones and Customs agents to the $18 billion a year already being spent. They also say the real key to stopping illegal immigration is the bill's expansion of the so-called E-Verify program, which will require all employers to check the immigration status of prospective employees against a federal database. Here's South Carolina Republican and Gang of Eight member Lindsey Graham at the judiciary markup.
SENATOR LINDSEY GRAHAM: The fence, the combination of border security will make it harder to come here illegally, but the key is if you get here, you can't find a job 'cause we finally got a way to control illegal hiring. And under this bill, you get a chance to find out who's legal and who's not. And if you hire an illegal immigrant in the future, you're going to get fined heavily, lose your business or may go to jail.
SIMON: Anything besides border security that could complicate this bill getting passed?
WELNA: Well, I'd say the biggest problem the bill could run into is if judiciary chairman Patrick Leahy adds his amendment allowing gay Americans to sponsor foreign spouses for green cards. Even Republicans in the Gang of Eight say they're not ready to back an immigration bill recognizing same-sex marriage. And Democrats worry such a measure might give Republicans political cover to abandon the bill. So, they're divided on whether or not to risk that.
SIMON: NPR's David Welna at the Capitol. Thanks so much.
WELNA: You're welcome, Scott.