All eyes on border as House bill on immigration takes shape; groups hold out for hope

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House Republicans will meet this week to plan their immigration strategy, which seems designed to push the issue to the right, but the Senate bill already faces a backlash on the left, where advocacy groups say the added border security is testing the limits of enforcement.

Many immigrant rights groups watched in despair as senators voted last month to add 20,000 Border Patrol agents and hundreds of miles of fencing in the Southwest.


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As senators were voting, volunteers from the Reform Immigration for Texas Alliance were getting arrested for demonstrating outside Democratic Party offices in Dallas and Austin to protest what appeared to be a major reversal by Senate Democrats, who had said an earlier bill would provide enough border security.

“Our response was, ‘Look, we are not celebrating the bill,’” said Adriana Cadena, statewide coordinator for the Texas Alliance. She said her group hasn’t taken an official position on the legislation as a whole and sees good parts of it, including quick citizenship for Dream Act youths and agriculture workers, but members also wanted to register their disapproval of the “immense militarization and criminalization” in the final Senate bill.

Most immigrant rights groups remain on board. They say they are wary of the direction of the debate but that the additional border security provision hasn’t spoiled the entire bill.

“It was absolutely a difficult decision,” said Ruthie Epstein, a legislative policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union. “Nevertheless, we did ultimately decide, reluctantly, to support the bill moving forward because the bill retains its core commitment to providing a fair if difficult path to citizenship.”

The Senate bill cleared on a 68-32 vote with 14 Republicans joining all of the members of the Democratic caucus in backing it. That vote signaled that the core of the deal — to offer quick legal status and work permits to illegal immigrants but to withhold full citizenship rights until the border is considered secure — is holding.

Analysts on all sides of the issue have decried the Senate’s border surge, saying the money is unlikely to produce much of a return on the dollar.

Ms. Epstein and other opponents said building up the border with that many agents could cause a spike in human rights abuses. During a surge under the George W. Bush administration, the Department of Homeland Security struggled to hire and train Border Patrol agents.

In Congress, action has shifted to the House, where Republicans hold a majority. They will meet Wednesday to hash out their strategy.

Several key differences have emerged — and none more critical than the approaches to a pathway to citizenship. Most Senate Republicans, including those who voted against the bill, agreed that a pathway is needed but fought over what conditions to attach to it.

That view is not universal among House Republicans, many of whom say that granting illegal immigrants citizenship is an amnesty for breaking the law.

Beyond that fight, House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, has called the security provision in the Senate bill “laughable.” He has signaled that whatever the House does, it will go beyond the border buildup in the Senate legislation.

It’s not clear how much leverage immigrant rights groups will have in the House.

With House Republicans under pressure to strengthen the bill, many immigrant rights groups say the Senate bill is their high-water mark and they now will be playing chiefly defense. It’s one reason so many groups were upset that the Senate added border security rather than waiting to fight the issue with the House.

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