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.
“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.
Cruz and Rubio are not the only conservatives pitted against one another in the immigration debate.
Rep. Paul Ryan, the GOP’s 2012 vice presidential candidate, entered the immigration fight Monday with a trip to Chicago with Rep. Luis Gutierrez, a Chicago Democrat. Ryan visited the Erie Neighborhood House, which assists low income Latino families. He chided lawmakers for making a “knee-jerk assessment” about the Boston bombings and their connection to the immigration bill.
“If anything, I would say this is an argument for modernizing our immigration laws,” Ryan said. “We need it for national security; we need it for our economy.”
Ryan, known as a congressional budget guru, also rebuffed the argument by Republican opponents that the bill’s legalization of undocumented immigrants would have a negative impact on the nation’s volatile job market. He argued that immigrants “produce faster economic growth.”
“Businesses from immigrants generate about $775 billion in annual tax revenues,” Ryan said. “If you look at this issue in its totality, immigration is a net positive contributor to the economy.” One person in the crowd waved a banner that read, “Gracias Ryan.”
The conflict among conservatives over the merits of the bill has even featured a debate over interpreting Scripture.
David Fleming, a pastor of Champion Forest Baptist Church in Houston, Texas, testified at Monday’s Senate hearing, where he said his pastoral duties have taught him that the current immigration system is painfully slow, inefficient, and often unfair. While acknowledging the tension between those who want to open the borders with little regard for the rule of law and those who want mass deportation with little regard for human dignity, Fleming called the current bill an “excellent starting point” for bipartisan discussion.
“We’ve got to keep the humanity of those involved very much in the front of our minds,” Fleming said.
The pastor then quoted from parts of Leviticus 19: “When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born.”
But Sessions, the Republican senator from Alabama who opposes the bill, countered Fleming with another Bible passage, citing Numbers 20. In that chapter, Moses asks the king of Edom for permission to pass through his country. When the king refused the request, the Israelites respected the ruling and turned away.
“I don’t believe that there’s scriptural basis for the idea that a modern nation state can’t have a lawful system of immigration and is somehow prohibited from enforcing legitimate laws,” Sessions told Fleming.