Sen. Marco Rubio says the immigration bill he helped push through the Senate would not have stopped the surge of children crossing the southwestern border illegally, breaking with his “Gang of Eight” co-authors who are urging the bill’s passage.
“I don’t think the immigration bill that was proposed in the Senate would have prevented that from happening,” the Florida Republican told The Washington Times. “What I think would have prevented that from happening is sufficient border security on the ground that would have discouraged people from making that journey in the first place.”
As the administration tries to get a handle on the surge, President Obama has said that having the House pass the broad legalization bill that cleared the Senate last year would help.
Most of the eight senators who wrote the bill — four Democrats and four Republicans — agree with Mr. Obama. They say the additional Border Patrol agents and technology would tighten security and that drawing a bold line for who gets legal status and who doesn’t would send a signal to parents in Central America that their children won’t be eligible to stay if they enter the U.S. illegally.
“We need to pass it immediately because there is dramatic investment in border security, and all of the Republican complaints against this administration has been ‘Send the National Guard in’ or ‘Send more resources to the border,’” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat and one of the Gang of Eight. “The bill dramatically increases the resources at the border, and Speaker [John A.] Boehner refuses to call it up.”
Two other co-authors, Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, Arizona Republicans, have written a proposal this month for stopping the surge of children. Their plan includes changing a 2008 human trafficking law and granting the administration quick deportation powers. But Mr. McCain and Mr. Flake still believe the original Senate bill would have helped.
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“The Senate immigration reform bill is the only legislation passed by either the House or Senate that would fund $46 billion in border security resources, provide for additional judges to hear immigration cases for those that have been apprehended, and increase penalties for human smuggling,” said Rachael Dean, a McCain spokeswoman. “Under the proposed legislation, it is clear is that no one attempting to enter the country after Dec. 31, 2011, would be eligible to stay in the United States legally, including the unaccompanied minors that have recently been apprehended attempting to cross in South Texas.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, said the Senate immigration bill would improve the situation at the border but the effort is separate from a solution for stopping the children from crossing into the U.S. illegally.
“We’ve got to stop the idea that if you get a kid to the United States they are going to stay. We can’t accept every child from a distressed nation,” Mr. Graham said.
The surge of children has exposed fault lines within the Gang of Eight and the immigration debate more broadly.
Mr. Obama initially placed blame for the surge solely on factors in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, saying the unfathomable violence was forcing children and families to flee to the U.S.
More recently, however, the president and his top aides concede that it takes so long for some illegal immigrants to be detained, and so many of them are released into the country while waiting for deportation hearings, that smugglers have convinced Central American families that they can gain a foothold in the U.S.
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Testifying to Congress on Thursday, officials said they need to expedite deportations to debunk the smugglers’ claims.
The Senate immigration bill would have granted a speedy path to citizenship to young illegal immigrants, who call themselves “dreamers,” and a longer path to citizenship — potentially 13 years — to most of the rest of the estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. who were in the country before the end of 2011.
Backers said that last part is important because it means those now streaming across the border wouldn’t be eligible.
But many Republicans say granting a round of legalization after an amnesty program in 1986 would send the signal that illegal immigrants will gain status if they wait long enough.
The Senate bill was in danger of failing until Sen. John Hoeven, North Dakota Republican, and Sen. Bob Corker, Tennessee Republican, wrote an amendment that would pour tens of millions of dollars into more border security.
Mr. Hoeven said last week that the surge of children proves he was right to support tougher enforcement.
“The focus that I had was making sure we enforce the border,” he said. “That includes more than just border security. That means addressing workplace law and making sure you take away the incentive to come here, and making sure that when people do come here they are deported.”
House Republicans never took up the Senate bill because conservatives said that granting legal status to illegal immigrants amounted to amnesty. House Democrats objected to the Hoeven-Corker language, which would have added 20,000 more Border Patrol agents and called for construction of 350 more miles of border fencing.
When they wrote their own legalization bill, they dropped most of the border security improvements, though they kept the path to citizenship intact.