WASHINGTON—Immigration reform must go through a five-step process to become law: approval from House and Senate committees, both houses of Congress, and a bicameral conference committee.
An immigration overhaul is still a long way from Step 5, but lawmakers achieved Step 1 this week when the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a sweeping reform bill with a 13-5 vote. The full Senate is expected to take up the legislation in early June.
“The dysfunction in our current immigration system affects all of us and it is long past time for reform,” said committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. “I hope that our history, our values, and our decency can inspire us finally to take action.”
The bill includes a pathway to citizenship for the roughly 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country, plus additional border security and tougher interior enforcement measures. It passed with support from 10 Democrats and three Republicans, including two of the Senators who helped write the 844-page law: Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, also voted in favor after the committee approved an amendment that would simplify the immigration process for high-skilled workers—a step labor unions opposed.
Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, John Cornyn, R-Texas, Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Mike Lee, R-Utah, and Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., all voted against moving the bill to the Senate floor. Supporters are optimistic the bill will pass the Senate, where Democrats hold a 55-45 advantage, and Graham said he believes it could garner as many as 70 votes.
The Judiciary Committee debated more than 200 of the 300 proposed amendments. Leahy —“with a heavy heart”—withdrew one of the most controversial amendments, which would have given foreign same-sex partners the same treatment as married couples. Such recognition is currently illegal under the Defense of Marriage Act. GOP lawmakers made it clear that the amendment would kill the bill.
House conservatives on Wednesday said Democrats are beginning to realize Republicans are serious about immigration reform: “Leahy pulled his amendment because he didn’t want to get blamed for shipwrecking the legislation,” said Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C.
Last week, a bipartisan group of House members announced it had agreed in principle on the framework for its version of immigration reform, although the group did not release details. But Raúl Labrador, R-Idaho, a tea party favorite who has been leading the talks, struck a grim tone at times when discussing the issue with reporters Wednesday: “Democrats want to give amnesty for the 11 million [illegal immigrants], but they don’t want to reform any of their programs.”
Labrador said the president’s healthcare law, the Affordable Care Act, has become a key sticking point in the negotiations. Both sides had originally agreed illegal immigrants would be required to purchase their own insurance, but Democratic leadership vetoed the compromise, saying the financial burden would be too much for immigrants. Labrador said Democrats must accept that the American people will not foot the bill for people who are in the country illegally.
“The argument is that they’re here to work and they’re here to not cost the taxpayers anything,” he said. “All the sudden we’re finding out that their jobs don’t pay enough, and that they can’t afford their own healthcare.”
Labrador pointed to the guest worker program as another potential problem, calling it “unworkable” in its current form: “The Senate makes the guest worker program difficult to utilize and it makes the wages too high after a year or two,” he said. “What you’re going to have is a black market, and you’ll have a lot of people hiring illegals again, and we’re not going to really fix the problem.”
The Senate bill includes a guest worker program negotiated in part by labor unions and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. It caps low-skilled worker visas at 200,000, which most Republicans view as too restrictive. The Senate Judiciary committee voted down a Mike Lee amendment that would have doubled the number to 400,000.
Labrador said conservatives are trying to “get to yes,” but they’re not willing to sacrifice core principles to do it: “What might be the story at the end of the year is that Obamacare killed immigration reform.”