The Senate immigration bill survived its first tests Thursday as a core group of Republicans and Democrats held together, killing efforts to require full border security requirements before legalizing illegal immigrants.
Kicking off the first votes on immigration this year, the Judiciary Committee held a daylong session on border security where senators agreed to require that the entire southwestern border be secured to 90 percent “efficiency.”
But the committee defeated Republican efforts to put that requirement and others before legalization. Members also rejected following through on a 2006 law that ordered the government to build 700 miles of two-tier fencing on the 2,000-mile-long border.
“I very much want to see the border shut down. I dislike illegal immigration,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat and one of those who led opposition. “But let’s do it in a smart way. Let’s do it in a way that’s cost-effective. Let’s do it in a way that doesn’t blow a hole in our budget. And let the experts decide.”
The votes marked the first test for the coalition of Republicans and Democrats pushing immigration reform.
Sens. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who were among the Republicans on the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” that wrote the bill, said they want tough border security. They voted repeatedly against other Republican amendments, arguing that they could upset the balance of the deal they struck with Democrats and saying the proposal sufficiently increases border enforcement.
“The key to me is not 2,200 miles of fence, it’s not 90 percent operational control, it’s stopping the reason they come, and that is to get jobs,” Mr. Graham said. “You control jobs, you will turn everything into a trickle.”
The crux of the immigration deal is that it offers illegal immigrants quick legal status but withholds a full path to citizenship until after the Homeland Security Department spends more money on border security, begins to check visas of those leaving by air and sea, and creates a mandatory system for employers to check immigration status before they hire.
The bill’s authors said those steps should be enough to give Americans confidence. Mr. Schumer said the bill “is tough as nails on border security.”
Republican opponents scoffed, saying they wanted the bill tied to final results, not to promises of spending. They also made clear that they don’t trust the Obama administration to be the final arbiter of security, particularly since Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano said she believes the border is secure.
“The committee has voted down every serious border security amendment that has been presented here today,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican. “The bill before this committee that relies entirely on subjective assessments from the secretary of Homeland Security that have no teeth.”
The last immigration bill debated by senators failed in 2007 partly because voters didn’t believe the government was serious about enforcing the law.
Lawmakers said voters remembered the lesson of the 1986 amnesty, when millions of illegal immigrants were promised citizenship and voters were promised stiffer security. The citizenship was granted, but not the security.
“We screwed up and shouldn’t do it again,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican who voted for the 1986 amnesty but is a leading opponent of this year’s bill.
The committee plowed through 32 amendments dealing with border security, closing out that part of the bill.