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Sens. Marco Rubio (left) and Ted Cruz
Associated Press/Photos by J. Scott Applewhite (file)
Sens. Marco Rubio (left) and Ted Cruz

Conservatives vs. conservatives

Immigration | The debate over the Senate immigration reform bill blurs Republican battle lines

WASHINGTON—As congressional Republicans continue to debate one another over the 844-page Senate immigration overhaul bill, the Obama administration this week signaled its support for the measure that aims to both secure the border and provide a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million immigrants now living in the United States illegally.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano defended the bill Tuesday in testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, saying it contains “common-sense steps that the majority of Americans support.”

Napolitano, the head of the agency within the Obama administration that will be affected the most by the bill’s measures, said the legislation backed by four Democrat and four Republican lawmakers provides bipartisan momentum.

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“One of the real significant improvements made by this bill is to bring people out of the shadows,” she said. “We know who they are. We know where they are. And, by the way, from a police perspective, once these people know that every time they interact with law enforcement they won’t be subject to removal, it will help with the reporting of crimes, the willingness to be a witness, and so forth.”

In the past, Napolitano has expressed reservations about tying citizenship to hitting certain benchmarks in beefing up border security. But her comments Tuesday were a clear sign that the Obama administration is willing to attach border security to legalization.

But some Republicans on the committee where the bill is getting its first look are concerned that its provisions won’t secure the border and stop the flow of illegal immigration.

Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, said the bill “repeats the mistake of the past” and favors a “legalize now, enforce later” approach. Meanwhile, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., fears the legislation gives the Department of Homeland Security “extraordinary” decision-making powers when it comes to immigration.

A growing number of Republicans are trying to slow down the immigration reform’s momentum while government agencies investigate the Boston Marathon bombings. In a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sent Monday, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky. wrote, “We should not proceed until we understand the specific failures of our immigration system” exposed by the bombings.

“Why did the current system allow two individuals to immigrate to the United States from the Chechen Republic in Russia, an area known as a hotbed of Islamic extremism, who then committed acts of terrorism?” Paul wrote. “Were there any safeguards? Could this have been prevented? Does the immigration reform before us address this?”

During testimony at Monday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach agreed with Paul, saying, “The background checks in this bill are insufficient from preventing a terrorist from getting amnesty.”

Some conservatives are worried that any comprehensive bill that tries to solve at once all the problems within the immigration system will lead to a flurry of unintended consequences. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said the immigration bill is a “solution that looks a lot like Obamacare,” in that it includes a bevy of cutouts for special interests and adds layers of federal government bureaucracy.

In its analysis of the bill, Heritage said it is a “Trojan horse for government spending,” citing as an example a $6.5 billion “Comprehensive Immigration Reform Trust” fund created by the bill. The legislation, according to Heritage, does not account for government benefits like welfare and entitlements that would be paid to those who are legalized over their lifetimes.

“The additional costs to taxpayers would be enormous,” Heritage said.

The Heritage report is just the latest offensive against the bill by some conservatives. Coming on the heals of last year’s election results that forced the Republican Party to reexamine its relationship with Hispanic voters, the immigration bill quickly has become the focus of infighting among GOP factions.

Last week members of the Tea Party protested outside the Florida offices of Sen. Marco Rubio, one of the Tea Party’s darlings, but also one of the immigration bill’s Republican backers. The protestors held signs that read, “No Amnesty for Undocumented and Illegals,” and, “Stop the Senate!”

The actions prompted Rubio to write a letter to the Tea Party.

“There is absolutely no truth to the idea that I will support any immigration legislation that is rushed through Congress in typical Washington fashion,” he wrote.

But Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, a Cuban-American Republican lawmaker like Rubio, said at hearings this week that he is skeptical of the bill’s pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

“Any bill that insists upon that, jeopardizes the likelihood of passing any immigration reform,” Cruz said, putting him in direct opposition to Rubio.

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