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Crumbling coalition? First cracks in immigration deal emerge

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Senators fended off changes to the immigration bill in committee on Tuesday, but the first cracks emerged in the carefully crafted compromise between business groups and labor unions, leaving even some supporters frustrated at the defensive votes they had to cast.

The second day of voting in the Senate Judiciary Committee underscored the fragile nature of the immigration compromise — but also the power of the "Gang of Eight," the bipartisan group that drafted the compromise and has defended it against changes from the right and left.

On Tuesday, the gang wrangled enough votes to stop one amendment that would have allowed the government to conduct audits to make sure a temporary high-tech visa program wasn't being used to displace American workers from their jobs, and also halted a proposal that would have required biometric identifiers from every visitor upon entry or exit in the U.S.

That biometric vote even exposed a split among the Gang of Eight. While four members who also sit on the Judiciary Committee voted to block biometrics, Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican and a key sponsor who is not on the committee, said he would have backed it and will fight to include it when the bill reaches the floor.

"Immigration reform must include the best exit system possible because persons who overstay their authorized stay are a big reason we now have so many illegal immigrants," said Alex Conant, a spokesman for Mr. Rubio. "We wanted the Judiciary Committee to strengthen the legislation by adding biometrics to the new exit system, and we were disappointed by this morning's vote."

As senators work their way through the bill, they have approved a series of technical fixes and on Tuesday approved a change that would share data on student visas with U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers.

The move was meant to crack down on the situation that allowed Azamat Tazhayakov, one of the students accused of hiding evidence for the suspected Boston Marathon bombers, to return to the U.S. even though his student visa had expired.

Senators also carved out special visa rights for those from African and Caribbean nations, and restricted the use of drones in Southern California.

But the biggest fight was over high-tech visas, which left Democrats forced to choose between supporting additional worker protections or supporting the Gang of Eight's compromise.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, the Iowa Republican who called for more worker protections, offered amendments that would have required an audit of 1 percent of companies that applied for high-tech worker visas, and would have stiffened the requirements for companies to prove they made good-faith efforts to recruit Americans first. Both amendments were defeated by votes of 15-2.

Mr. Grassley said it was odd that Republicans, who often are accused of protecting businesses, were the ones pushing for audits while the Democrats were objecting.

"If you want to hire Americans first, you've got to police the system to make sure it isn't being cheated," he said.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island Democrat, said he was told that voting for the provisions "would be a deal-breaker" for the bill, so he voted against them even though he thought they were good ideas.

When called on to vote, he cast his lot with the Gang of Eight but registered his protest with the dilemma he faced: "No — asterisk," he said.

Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, the Democratic chairman of the committee, earlier said he would back the amendment but voted against it when the time came. He later said he, too, wanted to work to come up with a compromise that could work.

The crux of the immigration deal gives illegal immigrants quick legal status but withholds a path to citizenship until certain criteria are met. But the bill also rewrites the legal immigration and guest-worker programs in language that was worked out between business groups and labor unions.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, who is chief sponsor of the bill and one of the Gang of Eight who wrote the compromise, urged colleagues to stick with the deal.

"We have come to a careful balance on [high-tech visas]," the New York Democrat said. "What we tried to do in our proposal is to find a balance. As you've seen, some people think the balance is too far in the direction of labor. ... Some people think the balance is too far in favor of high-tech."

Senators also continued to struggle with the balance between legalizing illegal immigrants and strengthening security.

The entry-exit visa system was part of that fight.

Biometrics — immutable characteristics such as iris scans or fingerprints — have been a sticking point since 1996, when Congress passed legislation requiring a biometric identifier of every visitor as they enter and leave the U.S. That was supposed to be a way of making sure temporary visitors go home when their visas expire.

The 9/11 Commission renewed the push after the Sept. 11 attacks, when several of the hijackers were discovered to have overstayed their visas.

But current immigration bill requires photos rather than biometrics, and only at airports and seaports.

Sen. Jeff Sessions, Alabama Republican, offered an amendment to stick with the current biometric requirement, and to prevent newly legalized immigrants from getting citizenship until that is completed.

"This is a big hole in the system and it's gone on for years and years," Mr. Sessions said. "This is one reason the American people have so little confidence in any promises we make."

But his proposal was defeated by a 12-6 vote, with 10 Democrats and two Republicans — both members of the Gang of Eight — in opposition.

"Current law is a concept. And there is apparently not a whole lot of will by Republicans or Democrats to make the concept a reality," said Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who was one of those Republicans.

Mr. Graham said he would like someday to get to biometric checks, but it's proved to be too expensive. He said the bill they wrote is the best compromise between the demands of the law and the current practice.

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