Immigration Reform Bill Holds Together In Senate Committee

The Senate Judiciary held its second round of debate on changes to the bipartisan immigration bill. Tuesday's focus was visas for workers, including visas for skilled technical work. David Welna talks to Melissa Block.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block. Partisan tensions flared in Washington today over a trio of stories - the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, the IRS flagging of Tea Party groups and the Justice Department's seizing of reporters' phone logs. But in one large room on Capitol Hill, a rare bipartisan collaboration steamed ahead. It's the immigration bill drawn up by the Senate's so-called gang of eight. And today, the Senate Judiciary Committee spent a second full day considering changes to it.

NPR's David Welna joins me now from the Capitol. And David, the bill is trying to strike a balance between tougher border security and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and a more merit-based legal immigration system. How did it fare in committee today?

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Well, Melissa, it's still essentially intact with those tradeoffs you mentioned largely unchanged and that's because two of the four Republicans who are in the gang of eight, which wrote this bill, are on the judiciary committee. And both of them voted today, as they did last week, with all ten of the Democrats on that panel to fend off changes to the bill that they feared could become poison pills.

BLOCK: Well, the main focus of the judiciary committee today, I gather, was on 200 pages out of the 800 plus page bill, the deal with quotas for legal immigration. But there was also some unfinished business from the opening of this markup process last week. What was that?

WELNA: There was. Last week's debate was all about the bill's aim to increase border security and one item was left over and that was an amendment from Alabama Republican Jeff Sessions, who's generally opposed to this bill. He said it needed a better way to keep track of when and if foreigners leave the United States.

SENATOR JEFF SESSIONS: We do have an entry system that's operating. However, the corollary exit program has never gotten beyond the pilot stage, despite widespread Congressional support. Because of that, it's impossible to know exactly how may aliens have overstayed their admission.

WELNA: Now, Sessions proposed that the bill condition granting green cards to some 11 million people who are here unlawfully on a system being set up that would use biometric data such as fingerprints or irises to track entries and exits. But proponents of the bill said doing so would be just too complicated and costly and would thus endanger the 13-year path to citizenship that they've laid out in the bill for those 11 million. And Sessions' proposal was defeated by a vote of 12 to 6.

BLOCK: And what about the other part of this that we mentioned, the more merit-based legal immigration system? What's the debate been on that today?

WELNA: Well, it's been all about numbers, how many foreigners should be allowed to enter the country each year and what should be the criteria for letting them in. The bill proposes shifting from what's now primarily a family-based chain migration system, in which an immigrant is allowed to bring in relatives over the years, to a more merit-based point system, where potential immigrants would be assessed mostly in terms of how they meet the demands of the U.S. labor market, whether it's for high skilled jobs or low skilled labor.

South Carolina Republican Lindsay Graham, who's a member of the gang of eight, assured colleagues that before any immigrant labor is brought in, the jobs they'd be filling would first be posted for job seekers here.

SENATOR LINDSAY GRAHAM: That's to ensure that Americans don't lose their job because of cheap labor. But here's the dilemma. Once the company advertises and they can't find a native-born worker, it's better to bring people into our country that can add value to our businesses than that business have to close or leave.

BLOCK: And, David, where does the bill seem to be headed at this point?

WELNA: Well, it's certainly going to make it out of the judiciary committee's markup possibly later this month, but the real question is whether it will get a big bipartisan vote leaving the committee that would give it some momentum in the full Senate. And to do that, it may have to become a bit more to the liking of conservatives. The panel has adopted a handful of amendments proposed by Republicans, but it's hard telling whether they'll be enough to make the bill filibuster-proof once it's in the full Senate.

And that's just the Senate. The GOP-controlled House has done little on immigration and it will be a much heavier lift to get a bill through that chamber.

BLOCK: Okay. NPR's David Welna at the Capitol. David, thanks.

WELNA: You're welcome, Melissa.

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